There Is No "World Music": A Conversation with the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart

November 9, 2011

About halfway into his three-decade run as a drummer in the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart became one of the most significant figures in the music industry, despite the fact that this side of his story is still mostly unknown. It was the late 1970s and, combining his skill for making high-fidelity recordings with his ongoing interest (we should really call this his obsession) with the indigenous musics of the world, Hart began to travel around to record what he calls "the greatest music on the planet." Having no intention to sell these recordings, he simply collected them, learned from them, enjoyed them, and shared them with friends here and there. Meanwhile, his nightly on-stage drum collaborations with Grateful Dead co-drummer Bill Kreutzmann (which usually appeared about midway through the second set of their concerts) came to reflect his immersion in indigenous drumming techniques, and Dead Heads would trance out in their thousands to the "rhythm devils" as they did their improvisation thing. But when the tour was over, he'd return to his other work.

Word spread that Hart was up to something, that he was archiving some pretty amazing stuff out there in those tiny villages and monasteries and jungle huts in Africa, Asia, South and Central America; it wasn't long before he was approached by a record label about releasing the material to the public. Within a decade, by 1991, with the Dead at the height of their commercial success, Mickey Hart found himself accepting the first ever Grammy for "World Music", a category that (though baggy and ineffable, with strong colonialist overtones and absurdist undertones) would come to be closely associated with him and his work. Despite his refusal of the category – "there's no such thing as World Music!" – Hart is perhaps its most important proponent. Over the past 30 years or so, Hart has helped record and release dozens of extraordinary albums by a diverse range of artists from all over the world. Much of it is connected to his first love, the drums, but a lot of it is not.

Moreover, he has evangelized for the role of drums in global culture, producing a series of popular and fascinating books on the subject including Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum, all of which demonstrate Hart's considerable skill at weaving anthropology with mysticism, religious history with archaeology, and musicology with biology. His efforts and achievements have been recognized by major bodies including the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress, both of which have counted Hart among their archivists and board members over the past 20 years. Mickey Hart – amazing as it is to Dead Heads who followed his work with their favourite band for so long – may well go on to be remembered more for his second career as an archivist and author than for his tenure with the great American rock'n'roll band.

As the Smithsonian Folkways prepares to release a block of 25 of Hart's recordings – on some of which he appears, some of which he doesn't – I enjoyed a long, circuitous and fascinating phone conversation with him from his studio. Among the most energetic people to whom I can remember having spoken, Hart's exuberance and delight over this new initiative (as well as all things related to drums and drumming) positively crackled over the lines. A thrill.

There's a universality to drums and drumming that you've always explored in your books and playing. And this list of records [to be released by the Smithsonian] is grouped under an umbrella title: The World. Do you have spiritual purposes here? Is this a project about cultural sharing and togetherness?

Well, a project? I don't know if you would call it a project. It's more like a calling. You know, I realized early on that there was a connection between drums, vibrations, and magic. Even when I was a kid I would go into altered states. It would alter my consciousness. I would feel very happy, high, very joyful. It was different from anything else I did. I mean, I loved to play sports, you know, baseball, football, when I was seven or eight years old, but there was nothing in it that (I can say now) exalted my consciousness, raised my consciousness. Music was completely beyond anything else. I noticed that, I took careful notice of that. I lived in very small, modest surroundings, but when I played music I became free, happy. My mind would think of things that I would never think of when I was doing anything else. So I recognized that there was power – innate power – in music. I guess that was the… the first hitch.

It was the recognition that there was something spiritual there?

Yeah, there's something magical in music. And it was that magic that always captivated my imagination. I became a rhythmist. And then, I started – I'm giving you the short of the long of it – I started wondering where the rhythm came from. I mean, I was aware of where science said it came from. I was aware even at a young age that there had to be a beginning, there has to be a timeline for everything. But, it wasn't till recently that I, well, we had always heard of this thing called the Big Bang, but until recently we weren't able to pinpoint when it occurred. Now we know it was 13.7 billion years ago.

Well, when I wrote that book [Drumming at the Edge of Magic, 1990] I was looking for the origins of percussion. So by writing that book I kept going back, you know? To the Mongols of the 11th century. Then I went back to the caves, and then the Neolithic, then the Paleolithic, and then when I reached the point where drums first started to appear, I thought, well, OK, where did that come from? And, it led me back to the beginning of time and space. The beginning of the universe. The Big Bang. And then I really, really made my imagination fly. I realized I was dealing with fundamental matter. Cellular. How we became human. What created humans, what created the earth. The moon, the sun, the planets, the galaxy. Us, the whole thing. And I realized that if there was a creator, it had to be a rhythm.

So, is this a project? Well, it's more like my lifelong investigation into this energy, and I just happen to be a professional drummer, but… no, I wouldn't call it a project. It's more like… my life.

You have the ability to move between these pretty heavy disciplines – sociology, anthropology, history, musicology, archeology…

I'm a musical archeologist, for sure. But, being in the Grateful Dead was the perfect spawning ground for all of this. I was able to see masses and masses of people going into trance! Music is invisible. You can't see it. You can't touch it. You can feel it, you can hear it, but it's an invisible energy. In some ways it's like electricity. It's a mystery. And that's what always intrigued me. Why was music put here? Why does every culture have a music? These big questions pop up. Being in the Grateful Dead allowed me to explore the outer, the edge (that's why I call it "drumming at the edge"), of what I could perceive. I was kind of thrust into the world of the para, of things that are beyond normal consciousness. I move into normal consciousness from time to time, but I spend most of my time investigating what's out there. When I play a drum I'm looking for transcendence, I'm looking for uplifting of consciousness. I'm looking for the groove. I'm looking for the feeling. I'm chasing it, constantly. I dream it. So I am it – it's embedded in me.

I'm working on the next book, it'll pick up where Drumming at the Edge left off. I've been writing it for years now. It will talk about the history of the vibratory universe, how we're affected by it, and how we can use it. That will be, with Drumming at the Edge, my magnum opus (if there is such a thing) on the subject. I'm really inquisitive about these things – I think I was put here for this. I feel like I got the call years ago. It's just what I love to do. And, it's fun. It fulfills me. It makes me happy. And when you've got all those things and you line all those things up, it gets pretty dangerous! All of this dominates my waking and dreaming. When I sleep I dream of drums, rhythms. It all points in one direction, and it just sucked me in. I never had any choice in it. It just overtook my whole consciousness when I was young, and then the Grateful Dead became such an influence on my drive.

With the Grateful Dead, you and Billy Kreutzmann brought drum solos into the regular rhythm of the show, especially after around 1980 when the drums/space thing became a 2nd set constant. I'm curious as to how much you thought of these parts of the show as introducing an audience to world drumming, and how much you just wanted to play good music for them.

It wasn't for everybody, but for the people who got it, it really was meaningful. We were exploring the world of entrainment, the world of rhythmic entrainment where we were looking for a giant sink. On a non-verbal level. We never talked about it, we just let it happen. And, of course we failed much, but we also succeeded much. And I think that when we did come close to ringing the bell it was just a real experience for everybody. It was the only part of the Grateful Dead that was truly improvisational. And, it was dangerous. Maybe even heroic in some ways, looking back on it, just going out there without a net, but we were prepared to fail. It didn't make us feel good when we couldn't come together in that grand way, but it also didn't stop us from doing it every night, trying to find that moment, because that was the grail, that was the goal. To be really playing music, to be able to be in real time, in the moment, that's really the purest you can be. That's the biggest payload.

It seems like you're always searching in those drums/space excursions. You can achieve those moments, but they're transient. That entrainment's not a permanent state; you have to find it again. You can get there, but you can't sustain it.

Well, yeah. Nothing is permanent, and rhythm is the most impermanent of all things because you never repeat, ever. That's the rarest thing. So, what happens is that the people who are there, the people who are inside of it, they own it. It's owned by no one else. It's original. A real original. Not like you're just improvising around the seam, something you already have done. It's a clean slate every time.

But, it's not like you can do it all night. I mean, you can do it all night, but… You need to have songs. You can't improvise forever. Something entertaining has to happen. I mean, I like a good song, you know? But I also like to be able to go way far away from song form, as far as you can possibly get, to see what happens. Let your emotions just spill out. It's like listening to your subconscious.

Do you regard drums, or rhythm, as a language as complex and communicative as any spoken aloud?

Well, rhythm acts on a different part of the brain than speech. So the neurologic function of music is quite different than language. […] We're coded to scan for music, for sound; but two different parts of the brain process them. So you're dealing with a spiritual side when you're dealing with music as opposed to speech. Now sometimes speech can take you to a spiritual place, but it's a completely different kind of vibratory stimulation. It's a different kind of emotional payload. So, you're talking about two different things. That's the neural science of sound. There's quite a bit of difference between sound and music.

Yet both are communicative, and collaborative.

But [sound] is communication on a whole different level. I look at things in these terms: there are things you can say in vibration, and understand in vibration, that cannot be said in speech. Speech is a very poor substitute for sound. It's very limited. Our vocabularies are quite small compared to the possibilities of sounds and vibrations. I mean, we have found out that vibration can be used in the healing process. Sure, you could read the great texts, and find some kind of extasis, some ecstasy in reading beautiful prose. It certainly illuminates you. But, auditory driving is what we're talking about. And rhythmic entrainment, which happens through music. You can't have that in speech. It's not part of that; it's a different world. It functions on a different level, and it feeds a different sensibility in the human consciousness.

As a matter of fact, not all musicians can play with other music. Music is not a universal language. I have met musicians that couldn't play with me because they were so culturally bound by their music. They could not step out of their traditions because they were so steeped in them. So, music is a universal, but it is not a universal language. Every culture on earth has a music, so it's universal that way, but not every music works together.

You've noted so many times in your books that although language may divide humans, rhythm is a uniting force.

Well, rhythm, harmony and melody is the trilogy of what we call music. The reason that rhythm is so much more powerful as a trance inducer is because it has a short sound bite, it denotes time, and it's redundant. And redundancy is the basis of trance. So that's the supreme power of rhythm. A drum is a tool which is used to lay down a rhythm, which is a groove, and a groove is what establishes the trace. That's where real true auditory driving comes from. That's what the science says. It's not just me talking. If you look at EEGs and MRIs before during and after an auditory driving exercise, you'll see that rhythm is the key to altered states. That's why drumming is becoming very prevalent in therapy and remedies for autism, Alzheimer's, dementia, motor impairments. Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot, one of her main therapies is rhythm therapy, music therapy. There are a lot of institutes now that focus on music as a legitimate science and therapy. You can get prescriptions written for music in many states and have HMOs and the insurance companies pay for it!  So it's becoming a very significant player in therapy.

That's the most exciting thing happening in music.
It's now going back to its roots in the archaic world, when it wasn't used for entertainment, it was used strictly for healing. But then it moved into this phase where it got concertized. This was fairly recent. […] But, music is not just meant to dance to, to get your ya-ya-s out. It was meant for other things. And now science is showing the way that these hidden energies can be unleashed on the people who need them like children with motor problems, the elderly, people who need to have their consciousness raised. Now there are facilitators, music therapists, who are skilled in how to deal music, as opposed to a performer who learns a performance skill. Good musicians don't have a clue how to work with someone with Alzheimer's and dementia, necessarily.

Genres are a funny thing, and they confound a lot of people who would prefer to think about music more generally, without artificial or marketing categories around different sounds. But, for better or worse, you will be remembered as a foundational figure in the rise of world music.


Well, what, finally, is world music?

There's no such thing as world music. Let me put it to you this way: if you're in the Philippines, Appalachian music is world music. World music is usually what is not here, it's what is out there. It's electric, it's acoustic… I've won two Grammies in world music and I don't know what it is. I won the first ever Grammy in world music [laughs] and I don't know what it is!
What I think they're trying to say is that most music is fused now. There's only one pure form of music that I know of left on the planet and that's the Gyuto Tantric Choir, the Tibetan monks. For thousands of years they've kept their chants behind monastery walls, and only since 1965 have released it to the outside. So, that's un-fused. I mean nothing has changed in that. I mean, even the music from New Guinea, they're playing guitars now. Radio waves have completely fused everything. You know, records. We've been recording music since the 1890s – March 18th 1890 was the first field recording. It's a little over 100 years of recording, and it has changed the whole soundscape. So, I mean… if you're a Pygmy in the Ituri rainforest, and you hear a radio playing Elvis Presley, or Beyoncé, that's world music. You understand? So, world music is a misnomer. There is no such thing as world music. It all depends on where there is. It all depends on where you are!

Look, I was in Egypt in the 70s, and I was on caravans, and people were listening to, you know, Kiss on the radio. They're on their camels, and they're listening to radio stations from Cairo. We're out in the middle of the desert and we're listening to American pop music.

You also brought the Dead there, in 1978…

Yeah, but. It's all over the world. Not just there. Since the advent of recordings, and now with the internet, I mean forget it. Radio waves encircle the whole globe now. Everywhere. And, so, when an Eskimo hears something, maybe, it's like when the Grateful Dead first heard the blues. It turned us into a blues band. You know? You base your knowledge on something that turns you on, that comes before you. We were coded to make music, for all these reasons, survival reasons, procreative reasons, so when you hear music that's meaningful and your light goes on, you try to make it, you try to sound like that. Eventually you find your own music. Once you get a skill, like playing the blues, maybe it turns into Grateful Dead music. Or jazz, big band, country. All music has its roots in something that preceded it. So, I called up Neil Portnow [President of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] when I got that last Grammy a few years ago. I said, "First of all we don't make albums anymore, and second, there's no such thing as world music. So, I appreciate the Grammy, but…." And we had a laugh about that.

Wait, listen, I've just been raving here. [laughs.] What do you wanna… do you have any questions?

Well, you've sort of answered my questions before I even asked most of them. But…

I know what we need to talk about! The Smithsonian!

Well, sure. So, here's this list of a couple dozen records spanning a few decades, and which will for better or worse be described as a goldmine of "world music". These are your records, though you don't even appear on many of them.

No, some of them I don't even appear on. It's not about me. I mean, some of it is, but some of it is just the best music in the world, music that I believed was worthy of being recorded at the highest level, the highest resolution. Giving it its moment. Giving it the care and respect that you'd give pop music that might be commercially viable. Each one of these I thought might sell a million records. I treated them like I did Grateful Dead records. But I wasn't thinking about money. I was thinking of turning people on to… Actually, it started with me just wanting great sounding recordings. Before I thought about releasing this stuff, I recorded it just for myself and for the artists. I made these artists an offer they couldn't refuse. I said, "Look: if we record you, I'll give you the tape and you can do what you want with it. If you want to do business with it, cool, we'll do business. But either way, I get to keep a copy of it, take it back to my studio, have a cup of cognac [pronounced con-yak], sit back in my green chair, and listen to some of the best music on the planet." You know? That was the deal.

But, at first, I couldn't even give it away. What I did was… somebody would have a birthday, or somebody would get married, or one of my great friends was having a baby, and I would give them a cassette of it, as the most precious gift I could give anyone. Most of the time they'd just leave it on the kitchen table. You know? Even my best friends. They didn't even realize… except, you know, except Jerry [Garcia]. And a few of my friends that were really understanding of what it was. But, yeah, I couldn't even give it away. So, selling? I don't think so.

But then what happened was [I got a call from] Don Rose from a little company called Rykodisc, who at the time had an ad in the paper saying "CDs only". CDs were less than 1% of the market then. Imagine: a company that was only making CDs, no records no cassettes. And I knew that CDs weren't making anything. But, he called me up and said he'd heard my recordings somehow, someone had given him a copy. He said, "I'd really like to release some of this." He came over and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He said: "I'll release anything that you do. You want to go in the studio, I'll pay for it, and release anything. But only on CD." I said, "Cool. Wow."

So, that's how it all got started. I never thought of ever selling it. I didn't think there was any market for it! This was in the early 1980s.

And then, how is it that you got hooked up with the Smithsonian?

Well, when they inherited the Folkways Collection, the Mo Asch collection [of field recordings and folk music], they called me up because of my specialty with digital transfer and they asked me to supervise the transfer of the collection into the digital domain from albums. So, I worked with them, did the Lead Belly, the Woody Guthrie… And we started our relationship there. Then I went to the Library of Congress, spent like ten or so odd years there, and then they brought me back to the Smithsonian, and I thought, well maybe it's time to put the whole collection together. You know from the Library, and from the old Rykodisc (which went out of print when they went out of business), and put it all together and put it in a place that will be forever, and people can download it. So this is the first 25, but I have a lot more, hundreds and hundreds of recordings of the world's music. This is the first 25 and I donated it to the Smithsonian.

It's about as big as it gets, the Smithsonian. It must be a thrill.

This is kind of like a round trip for me. Because I… the very beginning, the recording that turned me on was the Ituri Rainforest Pygmies, when I was a kid. And now, my recording [of the Pygmies] is appearing in this, the most amazing collection of indigenous music in the world. I mean, Mo Asch had I think 2600 LPs! You know? By the greatest songcatchers in the world. So it is a great honour to be able to appear here. […] This is my life's work, of recording, you know, since 1967, '68. So, yeah, it's a real thing for me. I appreciate you asking.

The question that has kept popping up in my mind as we've been talking is… Look, on the one hand you've got this preservationist, archivist approach to this music. You travel the world cataloguing it. Yet, you're clearly all the while celebrating the fact that music is evolving, fusing (to use your term), and the traditional (or pure) musics are disappearing. How do you reconcile these sides of your project?

Very easy. Very easy. There will always be music. But it is only when music serves the community that it can be viable. When the community changes, the music has to change. A community needs its music, and a music needs to serve its community. They are both linked forever. Now, music will never stay the same, no matter what. No music can stay the same and still survive, because there's different needs for the community, and the community always changes.

But, there're two kinds of endangerment. This is important. The reason that I preserve music is that, first of all, the medium on which it is recorded can start to decompose. Anything you recorded on (wax, tin, acetate, wire) had its gremlins, you know, mold, diseases, parasites and so forth. So, that history, our history, is being destroyed. The other part is that the actual music is disappearing just like language. So, in order for us to be able to appreciate our history, our musical history… See, in these songs is thousands of years of evolution of culture. If you wipe that out, you won't be able to tell how all the music got here and what the music stood for then. So, they're not just songs. They're Talking Books. They're the contents of the hopes the dreams the fears, the belief systems of these cultures all rolled into one. That's how I look at the recording. I see preservation and access as a very important part of being a lover of music.

And you are a lover of music. You have such a positive view of its role on earth.

I'm totally entranced by its power, and I'm totally in love with music. Because I know it is powerful.  I know it's one of basic elements that could possibly save the species from killing itself. You know, I really do believe that. Pete Seeger says that. I'm not the only one who believes this. You know, ask anyone who can articulate, they'll say that the energy given off by music is perhaps the one thing that could save humanity. The uplifting of the spirit, the rearranging of the priorities, allowing people to think clearly. You can say things through music that you can't say other ways. I believe that. I do believe that its energy is so powerful that it can mediate situations that nothing else can. Call me a wide-eyed optimist, or whatever you want to call me. A "music lover", you know? Call me what you will.

By - Stuart Henderson

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