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Legends Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain drum up a storm

A new album from Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain offers a coherently meshed sound refreshingly bereft of one-upmanship

American percussionist Mickey Hart.
American percussionist Mickey Hart.

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In 1967, when Mickey Hart joined the Grateful Dead, it wasn’t common for a rock band to have two drummers. The Dead, formed in 1965, may have been one of the first, in fact. Hart joined them at a time when they had Jerry Garcia on lead guitar and vocals; Bob Weir on rhythm guitar and vocals; Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on organ, harmonica and vocals; Phil Lesh on bass; and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Hart became the second drummer.

For staunch fans like me, Kreutzmann and Hart were a sort of yin and yang combo. Kreutzmann’s style of play was steeped in classic rock ‘n’ roll but he gave it the psychedelic twist that was the Dead’s hallmark. Hart was more of the constantly crazy experimenter with a penchant for exploring drumming and percussion styles from around the world. Incredibly, the two complemented each other perfectly in the highly improvisational band.

As the years passed though—and this includes his short hiatus from the band in the early 1970s—Hart had other projects, including collaborations with the Indian tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. Earlier this month, the duo launched another project, In the Groove—after a 15-year break.

Hart’s first notable project outside the Dead stable was Diga, an album released in 1976 by the Diga Rhythm Band, a percussion-based outfit created by Hart and Hussain. They assembled an array of skilled percussionists apart from themselves, including Aushim Chaudhuri (tabla); Vince Delgado (dumbek, talking drums); Arshad Syed (duggi tarang, nal); and Jordan Amarantha (congas, bongos). Diga was a pioneering effort in exploring percussion styles across the world, melding the sounds of the East with those of the West. It also marked the beginning of Hart’s journey into ethnomusicology and world music.

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The latest offering, In The Groove, has been launched by Planet Drum, a percussion-based world music band consisting of Hart, Hussain, the Nigerian percussionist Sikiru Adepoju and the Latin jazz percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo. In The Groove is Planet Drum’s third album, after 1991’s Planet Drum and 2007’s Global Drum Project. On Planet Drum, the ensemble included percussionists such as the legendary Indian ghatam player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram. Global Drum Project, which also won a Grammy in 2009 for the best contemporary world music album, has sitarist Niladri Kumar, sarangi player Dilshad Khan and singer and percussionist Taufiq Qureshi.

The range of musicians on each Planet Drum project can give you an idea of how Hart (who is now 78, while Hussain is 71) is able to meld geographically diverse styles into sounds that not only work well but also captivate. These are top-notch musicians, each a legend in their style. Yet when they play together on In The Groove, they produce coherently meshed, unified sound refreshingly bereft of oneupmanship.

Besides the percussionists, the album has other musicians. There is Jatinder Singh, the Rajasthani folk singer, and an entire “India session” comprising traditional percussion instruments.

In The Groove, not unlike the previous Planet Drum project, may not appeal instantly to all listeners. If you are a bit drum crazy, though, it is easy to fall for it. It can work as both serious audiophile listening (on good headphones or on a high-end stereo) and a background ambient soundscape.

Hart, Hussain and their bandmates vary the fare. Sometimes, it is a complex composite of different kinds of percussion slamming your ears. At other times, it is a near-minimalistic arrangement that soothes and transports you to a trance-like state.

As diehard Deadheads know, many of Grateful Dead’s live recordings have long stretches of drum solos—excursions by Hart and Kreutzmann that some fans love to trip to but which leave others cold. The Planet Drum projects can seem a bit like that: If you can get into the percussive tapestry, you can lose yourself; if you can’t, it can leave you cold.

But Hart’s dedication to experimenting with percussive music has been a constant through his career. In 2017, he released an album titled RAMU, an acronym for Random Access Musical Universe, in which he combined a huge collection of percussive samples and “found sounds” from across the globe with a drum machine to create musical meanderings that can sound strange and surprisingly enjoyable.

In the Groove too comes as a pleasant surprise for drummers and “drum heads” who love the sound of percussion. One hopes there will be more to come from one of the living legends of the drumming world.

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