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Mickey Hart : A drummer’s magic box

Mickey Hart, who turned 74 this year, has collaborated with musicians from across the world and from countless genres

Mickey Hart during a concert in Chicago. Photo: AP
Mickey Hart during a concert in Chicago. Photo: AP

There are very few drummers in rock music, no matter which of the countless subgenres you look into, who have the restive, experimental and constantly adventurous spirit that Mickey Hart does. Better known as one half of the Grateful Dead’s formidable drums and percussion section, Hart, along with co-drummer Bill Kreutzmann, has been the wizard behind that band’s incredible deployment of percussion—one of the numerous aspects of that band’s cult-creating music. While Kreutzmann is also a superb drummer, Hart is the wilder experimenter, with a repertoire of instruments drawn from all over the world and sonic samples collected over the years that continue to astonish listeners half a century after he joined the band and almost simultaneously also launched, in parallel, a successful solo career.

Hart’s recently launched 14th solo album is called RAMU, an acronym that expands as “Random Access Musical Universe". That’s the name for Hart’s personal database, collected over decades. It’s a computer workstation of sonic samples, which he has created, collected and archived, and one that he uses as an instrument. For an example of his experiments with sound, consider this. As well as recordings of percussive sounds collected from across the globe, RAMU has digitally created samples and sounds that include sonification of plants. In the late 1980s, while his day job with the Grateful Dead imposed a punishing routine of constant touring and playing shows, Hart released a solo album, Music To Be Born By, an entire record based on the sounds of his son’s heartbeat while still in the womb.

Hart, who turned 74 this year, has collaborated with musicians from across the world and from countless genres. In 1975, his album, Diga Rhythm Band, emerged out of a collaboration with India’s tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, who has remained a frequent collaborator, as have drummers from other countries. Hussain features on RAMU but so do other Indian classical musicians such as Sabir Khan (sarangi) and Niladri Kumar (sitar). Nigerian percussionist Sikiru Adepoju plays the talking drum, an hour-glass-shaped instrument; and Sekaa Jegog Yuskumara, an Indonesian musician, plays the traditional Balinese gamelan, an ensemble of predominantly percussive instruments.

To such “world music" exponents, Hart adds the Dead and Company’s bassist Oteil Burbridge, guitarist Steve Kimock, and “plays" RAMU himself. Wait, there’s also a surprise: RAMU credits the late Jerry Garcia as playing the guitar and synth guitar on the album, a reference to the recorded samples of Garcia’s music that Hart uses. That isn’t the only surprise on RAMU. Singer Avey Tare (co-founder of the experimental Animal Collective) lends his ethereal vocals, as does Tarriona “Tank" Ball (singer of Tank and the Bangas, a rising New Orleans soul-funk ensemble that won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest recently; it is highly recommended that you watch their performance).

Each track on RAMU has its own character. On Big Bad Wolf, it is political. Beginning with a spoken word introduction by author, actor and director Peter Coyote, the song stands uniquely apart from the rest of the album. Coyote’s opening is a narration from The Teachings Of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda but it is followed by Tank Ball’s hip hop style delivery of a song that is about America’s political landscape du jour. A sample: But it’s about to get real in this bitch/For a big Trump took a huge dump/On the American progression/Wiped his ass with the American flag/And now half the stars are missing. On Jerry, an instrumental tribute to his old bandmate Garcia, Hart goes fittingly psychedelic, blending rock and jazz to create a 1960s-style free-flowing track that you wish had lasted much longer.

Although the 12 songs on RAMU each have a distinct sound, for the technically minded, Hart lays a Pythagorean single-chord line through most of them, giving them a sort of thematic cohesion. Yet you can traverse a wide spectrum of sounds as you go from track to track. You can hear folk and jazz in Auctioneers; electronic dance music in You Remind Me, on which, incidentally, the sarangi and sitar feature prominently. RAMU’s tracks traverse a huge sonic landscape, from spacey psychedelia and funky soul to experimental electronica and free-form jazz. Yet, heard in its entirety and non-stop, it holds together as a series of segues that work well together despite the diverse influences that emerge in each of the compositions.

Hart has always been indefatigable in his endeavour to push the boundaries with the sound he creates. Those who have watched the Grateful Dead live (in flesh or on video) will know how he uses unconventional instruments, beats and sequences in his music. When he goes solo, that proclivity is multiplied manifold. There is a story about how after going to a Dead gig, the film director Francis Ford Coppola got Hart and Kreutzmann to compose and record for Apocalypse Now, a film on the Vietnam War. Recordings from those unusual sessions—compositions were created by the duo while watching rough cuts of the movie—were also released as an album, The Apocalypse Now Sessions, reference to the fact that much of the film’s footage is shot in a river in the jungle. That was in 1979. Nearly 40 years later, RAMU shows that the urge to experiment still runs high in contemporary music’s genius drummer.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Big Bad Wolf’ by Mickey Hart (featuring Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball) from ‘RAMU’

2. ‘Sweet Sixteen’ by Diga Rhythm Band from ‘Diga’

3. ‘Island Grove’ by Mickey Hart from ‘Planet Drum’

4. ‘Drums’ by the Grateful Dead from Radio City Music Hall (10/31/80; YouTube)

5. ‘Wayward Son’ by Mickey Hart (featuring Avey Tare) from ‘RAMU’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

The writer tweets at@sanjoynarayan

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