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

by Stuart Henderson

9 Nov 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.

cover art

Various Artists

The Mickey Hart Collection

(Smithsonian Folkways)

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.

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article