Mickey Hart on Rhythm Devils, sampling the Big Bang and the healing power of music

Mickey Hart (due tomorrow night at the Ogden Theatre) was one of the Grateful Dead's two drummers; along with Bill Kreutzmann, Hart helped weave the unique polyrhythms of the legendary band. Whether as a solo artist, with the Dead or as an activist, Hart always puts his heart and his being into his work, and his active mind has taken him down probably every path that has struck and stirred his imagination.

The author of a handful of books and a drummer on more albums than most other percussionists of his time and through to the present, Hart and his accomplishments speak for themselves. We spoke with Hart, who continues to give a great deal to his fans and to the world at large, about drumming, Francis Ford Coppola, and healing through music.

Westword: Your father was a drummer. What were some important lessons you learned from him as a musician?

Mickey Hart: My mom was a drummer, too. She showed me the rudiments of drumming when I was I old enough to take direction, probably about six or seven years old. She taught me the basic rudiments of it, and I started listening to Latin music and music that came from the rainforest and pygmy music and music from Africa and the rest of the world. So I was influenced by a lot of different kinds of music. I had a full meal.

I was really in love with the rhythm in things, not necessarily just in music. I loved to watch patterns in the surf, in the city, the cars -- the whole rhythmscape. I guess I was encoded with working with time, and of course there's no better way to do that than to become a rhythmist. It all kind of worked out perfectly for me. It's part of my musical DNA. I couldn't really imagine doing anything else with my life.

Who dubbed you and Bill Kreutzmann "The Rhythm Devils," and do you know why?

The relationship between me and Bill is really special. We don't play the same way, but we imagine the groove in exactly the same place. We really love each other and trust each other -- he's my partner. It's just a combination of things that happens. It's magic. You know, we don't really talk about it. It just happens, and we don't want to demystify it or anything for ourselves. It lives in a very special place. He's one of the best drummers in the world, and I totally respect his playing. He's an amazing drummer, and we're still friends after all these years.

Jerry [Garcia] named us. One night we were playing together, and we walked off the stage and walked back there, and I gave him the baton and said, "Your turn." And he said, "Man, you guys played like devils. You guys are like rhythm devils." I guess somebody overheard that and then started calling us rhythm devils. I think that was the birth of Rhythm Devils. We were playing in the "Devilirium" -- that's our playpen.

How did you discover the work of Babatunde Olatunji, and what about his music struck a deep chord with you?

Olatunji was the first music I heard from West Africa -- the powerful trance music of the Orishas, the gods of West Africa that came to the United States. He made a record in 1959 called Drums of Passion, and that album was a mixture of deep African grooves and chant. It was talking drum -- a variable-pitched drum that was on it. I had never heard one before. It was real dance music, and it was magnetic. I've been on that trail forever. Olatunji turned out to be a really beautiful man, the godfather of my daughter, actually, and a dear friend his whole life.

He was a major influence on the drumming movement here in America. He influenced Carlos Santana, Coltrane, Dylan, Baez -- anybody who came into contact with Baba was never the same. So he was a major influence on me, like Tito Puente or Alla Rakha, the great Indian drummer. These were great maestros that came into my life, and I brought them into the Grateful Dead scene so all our fans, all the Deadheads, could get a taste, an earful of the real thing.

What do you feel were some important lessons about rhythm and drumming that you learned from Olatunji, and what do you feel he specifically brought to Planet Drum?

The thing is that Baba always believed that music was life and life was music, that music mediated everything. Without music, as a human, you would die. You would shrivel up emotionally and you have no worth. He believed there should be a drum in every home. He was a real believer. Back then, that thought was impossible. Now djembes are like guitars. Every other family has a djembe or something; it's not as far-fetched an idea.

He understood the power of rhythm to bring people together in peace. That was something he could really elucidate, and he could speak eloquently about it. In his village in Africa, there was always music and there was always dance. There was never dance without a drum or a drum without a dance -- they were inseparable. And music was the mediator of everything. When the music stopped, stuff started getting weird, and when music began, things started to flow again.

I think, in the larger sense, besides his great playing and singing -- he was actually primarily a great vocalist and also a fine drummer, so he was a double threat that way. He had great pipes, and he could sing and chant. He was a very personable and friendly man. Very classy guy, very kind. All of that came out in the way he drummed, so it wasn't a lesson. Those were the kinds of things I learned from Baba -- very soft, so these grooves were able to ooze love. Those were the things that I got from Baba. The only way to get something like that is to see something like that in action.

You worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Apocalypse Now Sessions. What did Coppola tell you about why he wanted to work with you on that project, and what about that movie suggested the kinds of music you did for those sessions?

Well, he said he had come to a Grateful Dead concert and heard me and Bill play the Rhythm Devils, and he said he wanted his movie to sound like that. He wanted me to go in search of Kurtz up the river. So unlike a usual movie, he wanted me to make a performance of it. He didn't allow me to go scene by scene. This was kind of unheard of. I thought, "Well, this is a great challenge." Every time you did the movie, you'd have to do it from beginning to end. Many times playing that movie, a couple of times we would stop for napalm, the compound and the airstrike. Mostly he just wanted me to go into the heart of darkness, and it was really great working with Francis. There's nobody like him. It was thrilling beyond words. I learned a lot.

What inspired "Rhythms of the Universe," and how did you find working with the scientists on, for lack of a better word, translating the mathematics of all of that into music?

In 1991, when I wrote Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum, I was looking to the beginning of rhythm and how did we get the rhythm and why did we play music and all that. It lead back to Neolithic times and Paleolithic and then went beyond that. Then I realized the rhythm began with the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. In those days, you couldn't read the waveform. Radio telescopes weren't sophisticated enough, so I didn't even think of sampling the Big Bang.

Then the equipment became more sensitive and George Smoot sort of pinned the tail on the donkey; he actually located in time when the Big Bang happened. Before that, we thought it was ten to twenty billion, and that's like ten billion years of nothing. That's a lot of years not knowing exactly where time and space started, the beginning of creation. Beat one. The downbeat. Where in the universe did it all start?

Once I was able to pinpoint it and I looked back in what they called the cosmic background radiation -- which is actually the echo of the Big Bang and four hundred thousand years this side of 13.7 billion -- and I read the waveforms, and I changed them into audio from light to sound, I realized we could sonify it. It's called sonification to turn any light wave into sound. Then we could make it into a musical entity and have a conversation with the universe.

That was about three years ago, so I've been engrossed in building a stellar library for three years. And sampling the epic events of the universe which are part of the Mickey Hart Band. Which is what makes it really a specialty band because it was built to play these sounds and play around them and with them. I'm working on a project with George Smoot, who is a Nobel Laureate and won the Nobel in 2006 for his discovery of the Big Bang. I'm working on a DVD to be presented at the Smithsonian IMAX theater next year with George. I'm working on many projects now that have to do with sonification.

But this band will play some of these sounds from, you know, the pulsars, the galaxy, black holes and the Big Bang -- which doesn't sound like a bang. It sounds more like a low-flying airplane when you sonify it and bring it up or down or whatever the case may be. So you're actually making contact with the seed sound, with the creational force that began the chain of life. The sun, the moon, the earth and us. So it was kind of a continuum.

As a rhythmist, and a drummer, this timeline was very important to me. I'm a big timeline guy. I love history and I love geography, and of course I'm in love with sound so it all played an important part in the Mickey Hart Band concept and what we're trying to get across. It's not just another band playing music. Although it is music, it's dance music, it's not space music. It's got wonderful songs and words by Robert Hunter and myself. It's really great and it's on fire. We're having a blast out here.

For a long time now, you've been looking into the link between rhythm and healing. What first sparked an interest in that for you, and what kinds of things have you discovered since being more formally involved with researching that link?

My grandmother had Alzheimer's, and she hadn't spoken in over a year. And I played a drum for her and I isolated her. Actually, it was in a car. Put her in the car and drove around with her, and before we took off in the car, I had a little drum, and I was just playing it for her for fifteen or twenty minutes. And she spoke! She said my name and she laughed, and I went, "Wow, grandma spoke!" Then I realized that something about the rhythm and something about the sound reconnected her with the broken synapses caused by dementia and when the neural pathways get broken. Vibration reconnects these pathways, at least for a time.

That's what put me on to it to begin with -- hearing my grandmother talk. That made me realize that music has innate powers that could be used in the healing process and uplift life and do a lot of things that we just don't know about. That's what began the search for the grail. The code, the rhythmic codon. What the brain looks like before, during and after an auditory driving experience. That's where it all began.

We know now that being in rhythm brings life and brings people back to life, and it allows them to function in ways they're not able to without this rhythmic stimuli. From children to autistic folks, to Parkinson's and dementia -- the motor-impaired, especially. Bringing people together in rhythm alters the consciousness the way it is. It's more about the neurology of vibration. I discovered that it has lots of power and it works in many different ways.

Like Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, one of the main therapies to bring her back from the traumatic injury she had was music therapy, for instance. It goes on and on, and now, real science is weighing in on the code and the demystification of music and what kinds of music does what to what part of the brain, and what are the results with what's happening with it. In the next five years, we'll have this code pretty well down.

I assume that you were involved this year in Smithsonian Folkways putting together the Mickey Hart Collection. How did it come about that you were appointed to the board of trustees of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and how did you settle on 25 albums for that series?

I'm a remote recordist, and I've gone around the world recording. That's what they call song-catching. And I've been doing this for many, many years. When the Smithsonian inherited the Folkways collection many years ago, they called me in to supervise the digitization of it and cleaned it up and so forth. That was my first involvement with the Smithsonian.

Then I went to the Library of Congress for about ten or twelve years, and now I'm at both places -- a trustee of the Library and on the board for the Smithsonian. My specialty is indigenous musics from around the world and the preservation of them. And I just released 25 of my own recordings from the Mickey Hart Collection on Smithsonian Folkways Records, so it will be there in perpetuity. It's a great place for all my recordings with the greatest song-catchers that ever lived at Folkways.

So I'm very honored to be a part of all of that. If anyone wants to really hear some of the best recordings of the world's music, you should log on to Smithsonian Folkways. You can download it or you can buy hard copies of it. It has every kind of music besides mine. There's like 2,600 recordings or more that are on the label. So it's huge, and I recommend it highly.

Mickey Hart Band, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $35-$38, 1-888-929-7849.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.