Sept. 16, 2004
by BOB DORAN
MICKEY HART [photo at left] HAS A MISSION IN LIFE: "SPREADING THE rhythm seed," as he puts it. "Rhythm connects us to ourselves and to other people. It's the vibration, stupid. Without the right vibrations we're in chaos or we're fighting," said Hart in a recent conversation from his Sebastopol studio.
His "day job" as one of two drummers for the Grateful Dead, now known simply as the Dead, has given him the opportunity to sow that rhythm seed far and wide, often setting tens or even hundreds of thousands of music fans vibrating in unison.
But this weekend he has something different in mind, something he calls "Drums for Peace." Working in conjunction with the international music and dance event, Earthdance, whose aim is to move towards peace by getting thousands of people dancing together to one song, Hart has laid plans for the world's largest drum circle, with anywhere from 3,500-5,000 drummers playing in one place.
"Ritual and rapture, a rush of group noise, group rhythm, raising individual and group power, sending it out around the world," he explained, in an energetic rush of words.
Hart has arranged for Remo drums to donate 3,500 drums for the occasion. "After it's all over [the participants] will have the option of giving the drums back to [be used] in the music in school programs in California," said Hart.
Part of the plan is to document the event and submit it for a Guinness World Record. "It's held by the Turks at 3,140," Hart noted. "They broke the record, which was in the 2,000s. We didn't break the record, but we had the largest in 1991 with 1,800 -- the biggest at that time -- it wasn't validated but it was the largest."
In fact, in 1992, not long after the '91 drum circle, this reporter interviewed Hart about plans for a giant drum circle to be held in Arcata at Humboldt State. At the time, Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was ill and the band had cancelled a number of shows leaving Hart with room to do his own thing. Garcia recovered, the band resumed its tour and the event never happened. "I never got to it," said Hart, looking back. "I'm kind of busy."
Truth is, he's been "kind of busy" for some time now. When we spoke he had just returned from the Dead's "Wave that Flag" summer tour, which as any Deadhead will recognize, took its name from the song, "U.S. Blues."
This time the message was a bit different, and according to Hart, simple. "Go out there and fucking vote. Vote while you have a chance. This is probably the most important election of your lifetime and if you want to take America back -- which is kind of patriotic -- you'd better get it on now. That's what "Wave that Flag" is about, that and also about waving your personal flag. Beyond being patriotic and taking back what's left of America, stand up for what you believe in."
And when he's not out making music, he's working on something he calls "The Anaconda: the information snake," a massive collection of data about world rhythm that so far has resulted in four books: Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Planet Drum, Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music, and most recently, Songcatchers: In Search of the World's Music, written in collaboration with National Geographic.
Eventually he will complete a really big book on rhythm. "I'm on it," he said. "I've been working on it for years. It's a massive work, a magnum opus. I've collected the information, put it into binary code; it's data, metadata, data about data. And now I'm about ready to get serious writing the narrative. I'm seriously into it."
His search for the rhythm story has taken him far and wide recording music, and revisiting the work of others. His Songcatchers book examines the ethnographers who left a legacy of recordings in the vaults of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
"They realized that these songs were more than just sounds," said Hart, speaking passionately about the "ethnos" who came before him. "The songs they found were histories of great cultures, thousands of years of evolution, and they recognized that [the music] was falling off the edge of the world, that there was only a breath in time, a moment to gather these things. They were hell-bent of catching these songs -- that's why we call them songcatchers.
And Hart has joined their ranks. "I've been all around the world looking into everything from Koranic chanting to Native American music. And it's not just recordings of rhythms -- it's our dance with the vibratory world around us and where we're heading as a species in our dance with the infinite, which is the rhythmic origin of the universe."
The Earthdance United Beats of Peace Festival runs simultaneously in 130 cities in 50 countries with the hub in Northern California at Black Oak Ranch from Friday, Sept. 17 until Sunday Sept. 19. In addition to Drums of Peace with Planet Drum, the event in Laytonville features a diverse array of music on five stages, including Ozomatli, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Blackalicious, Steve Kimock and the Everyone Orchestra, Midnite, Panjea, Joanne Rand and many more.
The international Prayer for Peace takes place at 4 p.m. Saturday; Drums of Peace follows immediately after. Both will be broadcast live on the Internet along with Earthdance events worldwide, with streaming services supplied by Arcata-based Streamguys.
For a full schedule of the local event and the international dances, go to www.earthdance.org. For a history of the Earthdance event see "Dancing for Peace," an interview with Earthdance founder Chris Deckker from the Sept. 18, 2003 North Coast Journal. Bob Doran's 1992 interview with Hart is a related story, see below. Mickey Hart is online at www.mickeyhart.net.
This Saturday, Sept. 20, people in over 130 cities in 50 countries will join together for Earthdance 2003, dancing for peace in a world torn by war and strife. The hub of this international event, "The United Beats of Peace Festival," is here in Northern California, running all weekend at the Black Oak Ranch near Laytonville.
"The event is actually in its seventh year now," explained Earthdance founder Chris Deckker. "It began when I was living in England; it was a vision I had for uniting the music and dance culture as a vehicle for world peace."
Originally from Australia, Deckker is a percussionist whose musical journey began with Latin American and African music. In the mid-'90s, he relocated to London where he began investigating what he calls "a fusion of electronica with ancient rhythms."
While running dance clubs, he joined forces with synthesizer player Alex Newman and founded a band, Medicine Drum. Part of the idea was to explore the healing power of rhythm.
"People were dancing until 6 o'clock in the morning and having this incredible experience on the dance floor that can only be described as shamanic. And there was an extremely strong level of community connection. We took that and distilled it into a philosophy. We saw it as a new paradigm where people joined together once again to dance all night," said Deckker in a call from his current home base in Oregon.
As electronica evolved, Medicine Drum moved towards creating more organic live music merging synthesized sounds with primal tribal rhythms. At the same time Deckker was thinking about the music as a tool for raising social consciousness.
"Using music as a vehicle for positive change has been my life work, and that led me to the idea of creating a one-world party, where at one moment in time everybody could listen to the same track and feel that same vibration in music at the same time, which is the whole focal point of the Earthdance concept. So at 12 midnight London time, no matter where you are at any Earthdance party, you're listening to the same thing. In California that will be 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon."
The track? "It's a five-minute ambient piece of music with a spoken word universal prayer that has been translated into different languages. I wrote the words; my Medicine Drum partner, Alex, composed the music in England all those years ago. We've been using it ever since."
At first Earthdance events were mainly in the electronica vein - and the Northern California "Global Festival for Peace" will include a large dome with music by some of the world's top dance DJs including Toby Marks of Banco De Gaia - but as Deckker explained, "Now it's expanded. We've got musicians from all across the world, from many, many genres getting together at the Black Oak Ranch. It's conscious artists coming together to show that there are no boundaries in music, which is intrinsically a powerful medium for spreading the message of peace."
The line-up for Earthdance does in fact cross many genre lines with dozens of bands on several stages. Alongside the neo-tribal sounds of Medicine Drum, Lost at Last and Panjea, there's musical activist Michael Franti and Spearhead using hip hop and soul to spread the word, space music by Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Trance Zen Dance, the liquid guitar sounds of jam-master Steve Kimock, jazzy jams from the Slip, reggae from Big Mountain, Midnite and Groundation, and sharp political hip hop from the Coup.
The Southern Humboldt film collective Earth Films is organizing an Eco-activist Film Festival for Friday night. Other local participants include activist songwriter Joanne Rand from Orleans, Arcata's Something Different and SoHum's the Non-Prophets.
According to Deckker the common thread in the acts booked is a commitment to social consciousness. "If you look at society, music has been the spearhead of many revolutions. In the '60s music was a major force in the consciousness revolution. I think that's happening again as well. There's a resurgence of music asking questions: Where are we with our lives? What's happening with society? What's happening with our government? All of this is reflected in the music of our times and musicians are becoming more conscious and using music as a vehicle for expressing that consciousness."
Does music have to power change the world?
"Music has the power to open your heart - and when you heart is open you can feel the feel the positive vibration of change within yourself. And then that can inspire you to be a better person in your life, a better person in your community," said Deckker.
"Music has been a major force since indigenous times. When we were just a tribal society there was always the element of music galvanizing he community into a moment. It might have been the full moon ritual then, but now it's a dance party or going to a club. It's a very intrinsic element, it's still present: People come together, they join as a community, they dance together and feel a sense of community power. And that is a powerful force."
You probably know Mickey Hart as the percussionist for the Grateful Dead. That's his "day job," which he says, "makes it possible to fully live out my life of imagination." His "enthusiasms" (as he calls them) include a major information gathering project on rhythm which, so far, has resulted in two books, Drumming on the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum. He has made a number of albums on his own, including two that accompany his books. October 11th  he is scheduled to be in Arcata leading a large drummers' circle, an event coordinated by CenterArts. I spoke to him while he ate his lunch at the Grateful Dead Studios in Marin County.
ENTRAINER ON THE EDGE
BD: What is an entrainer?
BD: You are usually referred
to as a percussionist.
BD: How is a percussionist
different from a drummer?
BD: So you're not limited
to drums. In describing the line-up of the Grateful Dead, you
would be listed as the percussionist and Bill Kreutzman as the
BD: In your book you refer
to his "ability to find the beat and lock into it."
BD: You say he "finds
the beat." I think of drummers counting off the start of
a song, in effect setting the beat. The way you describe it,
it's like the beat is there and he discovers it.
BD: You also speak of "the
power of the drum." What is that?
BD: What is "the Edge"
you write about, with a capital E?
BD: Do you see it as a boundary?
BD: Is that what you try
to achieve with your music?
BD: You're saying that music
BD: What about the use of
music in society?
BD: One of the things I got
from your writing is that in modern Western civilization, we
have made music a separate thing instead of using it as a day-to-day
part of culture.
BD: The performer is separated
from the audience
BD: Let's talk about what
you're going to do here in Arcata.
BD: Who will you bring with
BD: What's a runaway drum?
BD: What instruments will
BD: What should people bring?
BD: It's not a concert.
BD: Have you done this other
BD: It sounds exciting.
BD: You probably haven't
heard about it, but there's been some local controversy lately
concerning drummer's circles. Groups assemble on the Plaza in
Arcata. They bring congas and...
BD: Shopkeepers complain,
the mayor complained...
BD: The City Council is thinking
about some sort of ban on drums on the Plaza.
BD: On your last album, Planet
Drum, you assembled a group of musicians from four continents
and four different cultures. Was there any difficulty in getting
the ideas to mesh?
BD: The logistics of assembly.
BD: Once you had everyone
BD: Does this imply rhythm
as some kind of universal language?
BD: Perhaps unconsciously...
BD: I think it worked really
well. I really like it a lot.
BD: You are the "executive
producer" of a series of recordings called The World from
Ryko. What is your role in that company? What do you do?
BD: You actually make the
recordings, hands on?
BD: This is the stuff you
talked about in your book, when you would go out with your Nagra
[tape recorder] and...
BD: You quoted ethnomusicologist/folklorist
Alan Lomax. He fears "the cultural greyout" he said,
"In another generation nothing will be left but their artifacts
packed into metal cabinets at the Smithsonian." So, is this
series your way of unpacking some of those cabinets and sharing
what you find?
BD: The recordings are from
the tribes of the Rainforest?
BD: You also sit on the Board
of Directors for the Smithsonian's Folkways label. Is there some
connection between that and your Rykodisc series, The World?
BD: If everything's there,
it must be hard to find what you need.
BD: You wrote about your
encounters with a group of people involved in ethnomusicology.
You called them "the Ethnos." Have you become one of
BD: You seem to be pretty
active in this yourself. Are you doing more new field recordings
or are you overwhelmed with re-archiving the past?
BD: Let's talk about this
thing you call "the Anaconda." [The Anaconda is a mass
of information about the history of drums and rhythm.] So far
the Anaconda has resulted in a book called Planet Drum and another
on the making of that book Drumming on the Edge of Magic [also
a partial autobiography]. I get the impression that there's lots
more of the Anaconda that we haven't seen yet.
BD: What's the future of
BD: I'm trying to figure
out where you find the time to learn and do all this stuff.
BD: Then sit at your computer?
BD: Electronic hunters.
BD: Your next book?
BD: Bigger than the other
BD: On what??
BD: Our body's natural rhythm
is around 120 beats per minute. What do you think about techno/rave
music which has pushed the bpm to 135?
BD: A lot of what you just
described could apply to a Grateful Dead concert, but with the
pace a bit slower.
BD: What are you working
on now? I mean new music from Mickey Hart.
BD: Will this be pure rhythm,
or rhythm and synthesizer?
BD: Your Planet Drum album
is pure rhythm but very musical with the Beam...
BD: I think that covers everything
I was going to ask.
BD: Well, that's your job.
BD: It's more than a job
Bob Doran's interview with Mickey Hart
appeared in a slightly different form in the Oct. 1992 issue
of Edge City magazine.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.