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

Page 2 of 2

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.