Mickey Hart Interview
By Toni A. Brown
Mickey Hart is well known for his diverse musical tastes that range from mere sounds, which the common ear would hardly find discernible, to some of the most elaborately complex compositions to be found.
Aside from his work with the Grateful Dead as “percussionist extraordinaire,” his ceaseless efforts in locating the world’s untapped musical resources is of great benefit to all music enthusiasts.
Hart has recently released two albums which should find themselves at home amongst any collection that boasts variety and excellence. The Music of Upper and Lower Egypt and Sarangi—Music of India are what Hart looks on as just the beginning. The resources are about to be tapped.
RELIX: Why did you originally begin recording world music?
HART: I wanted to learn about the musics of the world and master the art of Nagra remote recording. I discovered that there was a lot of ethnic music that deserved recording. There were so many neglected but worthy artists who could never afford to record their music that I felt I could provide an important service. I had the hope of being able to preserve the remnants of great but often dying cultures in addition to exposing my close friends to “world class artists.”
Dan Healy and I began to record such artists as Ali Akbar Kahn, Alla Rahka, Zakir Hussein, Father Hines, Hazma El Din, Norma and Jack Teagarden, the great stride piano players, Turk Murphey, the Demon drummers of Japan, etc. We took great care in recording these people. Unfortunately, at the time there was no market for this work. It was not scene as being commercially viable even on a small case. However, today, due to the shrinking global scene, many more people realize that it is vital to understand life in other cultures. For example, what goes on in Egypt or India has more direct bearing on our current lives. Music is often a key to understanding another culture.
RELIX: You recorded The Music of Upper and Lower Egypt back in 1978. Was that your first visit to Africa?
HART: No. I was there in the early sixties. I traveled to Algeria and Egypt. In Morocco I heard the Dervishes, who sang and danced themselves into trances, also the Hasish farmers playing drums and Magroons (double reed instruments). The farmers played all day and all night, the groove would be sustained for days, with certain musician/farmers dropping in and out to eat and attend to other bodily functions. Occasionally, the music would be punctuated by bursts of gunfire.
RELIX: When you were in Egypt, did you study any of the effects of cultural differences on music?
HART: I prepared myself for this trip by learning their national instrument, the tar (a single membrane circular frame drum). I basically put myself in the hands of Hamza El Din, the great Nubian oudist (multi-stringed lute type instrument) and Tarist. Previously, I recorded and produced Eclipse, Hamza’s record of Egyptian folk music on the Pacific Arts label.
He taught me that music goes along with every part of the villagers daily life. The music was specifically designed to help them with their work. In addition, there was the ceremonial music. These traditions were being diffused because of the twentieth century-electricity powered radios in the home, and transistor radios that accompanied camel-drivers in the desert.
In some cases we knew we were capturing the last vestiges of certain kinds of music. In some areas of Egypt, Hamza was my musical guide. In other places, I had to seek the music out by exploring the local habitat.
After the Grateful Dead played in Cairo at the great Pyramids, we went to Aswan. I was accompanied by my engineers, John Cutler and Brett Cohen. From there we went to Komumbo, Hamza’s village in the Sudan, and then to Alexandria on the coast.
The first side of Music of Upper and Lower Egypt are the recordings of the Felucco boatmen of Aswan. The second side of the record captures the music of desert nomads who live outside Alexandria.
RELIX: Did you find the music varied significantly between regions?
HART: Of course. As any musician or musicologist will tell you, environment dictates the nature of instruments. Scholars such as Steven Feld at the University of Pennsylvania do extensive research on the effects of environment on music. He is specifically looking at music in the rainforests of the New Guinea where there is little light.
The Egypt record is an excellent example of environmental and political influences within the musical tradition of a modern nation. The Pharonic, Coptic, Islamic, Maeluk, and Colonial influences are all represented. The folk music tradition reflects the atmosphere and life of its people.
RELIX: Are there any instruments that stick out in your mind?
HART: The tar is my favorite. It’s found throughout Egypt. Then there is the mismar, a reed instrument, from the SA’ED region between Luxor and Gerga. It carries the melody and sustains the hypnotic drone. Also, there is a five string lyre.
RELIX: What sort of equipment did you use for the recordings?
HART: For the Egypt record, I used a stereo Nagra IV S and Sennheiser shotgun mics. The Indian tapes were recorded on a 16 track Ampex MM1000 to a Studer 2 track.
RELIX: Sarangi—The Music of India, has a different approach. Tell us about it.
HART: Sarangi was recorded in 1974. My teacher, Allah Rahka, Ravi Shankar’s drummer, was found touring with George Harrison. Ravi hired the finest musicians in India to join George and make fusion music. He played at the Cow Palace outside San Francisco.
After the show, Zakir Hussein urged his father, Allah Rahka, to invite the musicians to play the following day at the Ali Akbar Kahn School of Music in Marin County. I was a student there at the time. Dan Healy, Rex Jackson, and I scrambled to set up the 16 track machine. We ended up recording an all night session of these extraordinary musicians playing for themselves. These musicians hadn’t seen each other in years. When they were young, they were the hot shots on their own individual instruments. They went their own ways and became famous. This was a chance for them to play with each other and for each other. We rolled tape… and Sarangi is my favorite part of that evening. The Sarangi is a rare instrument not usually heard outside of India. The performers are Sultan Kahn on Sarangi and Shri Rij Ram on Tabla. It was a very moving experince.
RELIX: Are you planning any other similar surprises? Are any other solo efforts on the horizon?
HART: Lots of them, schedule permitting. Once the music is recorded, it lives forever. The dreams are out there. I am just working my way to them. They come around, little by little, if you stay around.
RELIX: What audience do you expect to reach with these records?
HART: I hope to reach all those who wish to explore the world’s music. Although this caters to my taste and is my favorite music, I believe its striking beauty will move many others.
RELIX: Do you think percussion enthusiasts will learn from this record?
HART: Not only percussion enthusiasts, but people who appreciate music. There is a goodly amount of percussion in it, but there are also soulful voices carrying strong melodic lines.
RELIX: What was your earliest exposure to percussion music from other cultures?
HART: Latin Music followed by Indian, African, and Pacific Island musics. Later on American Indian, Eskimo, Canadian Inuit, Chinese and Japanese percussion music.
RELIX: There was a lot of positive reaction to your previous release, Dafos.
HART: It was incredible. It’s now available in Compact Disc (CD) format. In the audiophile world, it’s state of the art. They’re comparing a lot of audiophile music to Dafos. Audiophile recordings are recorded using state of the art recording techniques. They are pressed on virgin vinyl, often designed to revolve at 45 RPM, and utilize packaging techniques to promote longevity on the disc.
I’ve been getting great feedback on this record. I think its one of the top 10 imports in Japan. I am very pleased. People appreciate quality. A lot of care was taken in every aspect of the production. The success was no accident, I assure you. Credit is due to the artistry and wizardry of Tam Henderson, Marsha Martin, and Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings in San Jose.
RELIX: Are there any goals that you set for your records?
HART: I want the music to move other people as I am being moved. I would like to evoke a spirit of awareness to new sensibilities that go unnoticed or untapped in the normal, everyday waking state. I am constantly updating who I am. I am constantly learning new ways of expressing my feelings through music. I am constantly exploring. As Albert Einstein said, “it is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even in an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature…The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
I hope my music reflects and perpetuates this wonder.
RELIX: I’ve heard you’re working on a book.
HART: Yes, The Edge of Magic. It’s my personal investigation into the spirit of percussion. Joining me in this project are Professor Frederic Lieberman, Dean of Porter College at U.C. Santa Cruz, and eminent musicologist and Prof. Elizabeth Cohen of Stanford, an acoustician.
RELIX: Any news on the next Grateful Dead album?
HART: No, but we are working on the theme music for the upcoming CBS series, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which will premier this Fall. We seem to be very good at it. After all, we’ve lived there for so many years.[ Close Window ]