Beat of a gypsy Hart: Drummer Mickey Hart and the universe

By Sue Zalokar, Contributing Writer

Grateful Dead backbeat Mickey Hart has been studying the social and cultural aspects of music for decades from his perch inside the drum set. He came by this interest in instruments of percussion by heritage: His father was drummer and owned and operated a music store.  But it was just after high school when Hart’s discovered the music of Nigerian drummer, educator and social activist, Babatunde Olatunji, and it opened up the world of possibilities for Hart. He would later study with Olatunji, bringing the unique rhythms of world beat music to the both the Grateful Dead’s music and his own.

Hart’s 1991 album, “Planet Drum,” hit number one on Billboard’s World Music chart that year, and won the first-ever Grammy for Best World Music Album. He is the author of four books, has testified before a congressional subcommittee on the healing power of music, and has worked with both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian to digitize and preserve recordings of his own and others.

This month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame features a Grateful Dead exhibition: The Long Strange Trip. And at 67 years old, Hart has set out on tour with his band this month promoting his newest album, “Mysterium Tremendum.” Hart captured the sounds of the universe and converted the raw data into samples that he uses on stage every night as the backdrop for his latest musical exploration.

The Mickey Hart Band comes to town May 10 at the Crystal Ballroom featuring a world-class, eight-piece ensemble; Mickey Hart, Dave Schools, Gawin Matthews, Tim Hockenberry, Crystal Monee Hall, Sikiru Adepoju, Ben Yonas, Ian Inkx Herman — not including the universe.

“I’m taking light waves from the universe and transferring them into sound waves and using them as part of the composition on space as part of the music,” Hart said when we caught up with him on tour. “It’s a rock-n-roll format with beautiful songs and these amazing space sounds from 13 billion years ago. It’s a wonderful adventure.”

Sue Zalokar: For those of us who haven’t heard the raw data, What does the universe sound like?

Mickey Hart: That’s a good question.  There are a lot of collisions.  There is also a lot of chirping, a lot of thumping, pulsing. It’s not what you would call music.  It’s what you would call noise. So what I do is I take that data and I bring it from the form of light, or radiation, into sound waves and bring into our very limited spectrum.  And then I make it so that it’s not noise, it’s music.  I sound design it.  I take the raw data and I make it so we humans can make it music and dance to it and enjoy it.  But it comes from those original ‘seed sounds’ that created the universe. It’s the trip of a lifetime.

S.Z.: What is the significance of, or what are you saying to your listeners with “Mysterium Tremendum,” your most recent album?

M.H.: It addresses the giant mysteries of the universe. Where did we come from?  When did we become human? Where are we in the chain of evolution? My books in the ‘90s (Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum) both were in search of where the groove came from. Eventually it led me to the birth of the universe, the beginning of space and time, from creation. Back in 1991 there were no machines or instruments to read that data, but now we have them. It kind of gives you your place in the universe because this is kind of an ancestral thing. These are the sounds that created the sun, the moon, the earth, us.  So it’s really a family tree in a way, hearing what the universe actually sounds like.  Each star, each planet sings its own tune.  I’m just listening in on the conversation. It remains to be seen what the relevance  and the significance is except that you know that you are dancing with the infinite universe and that’s what music is supposed to be.  You are vibrating with the Gaia of vibrations.  Everything is interconnected in some way and this is a real scientific way of understanding that principle that we all are in this kind of celestial clockwork.  And we are just this very small piece at the end of the chain.

S.Z.: Explain, in your experience, the relationship between science and art?

M.H.:  Art is conceptual. Science is absolute. When we play music, we are postulating.  Music is just a miniature of what is going on in the heavens. And that’s why we play music, every culture. Because it emulates what is going on vibrationally speaking in the heavens.  Music is just controlled vibrations. We aren’t just drumming. We are using computers on the stage, we’re using sounds from billions of years ago that we bring up and recall every night. The musician of the future will be the musician scientist. The days of just being someone on your instrument are drawing to a close. The idea of enhancing it and taking music to a new place with new colors and sounds, new feelings it’s all about science.  I like to play, so I use machines in my work and my art.  Some people just press a button.  It’s not like that here. Mine is more like an improvisational performance as opposed to a beat box.

S.Z.: In 1991 you testified with Oliver Sacks (a British neurologist whose 1973 book “Awakeings” was later made into the film by the same name) before the U.S. Senate about the healing power of music on the aged. What, in your experience, is the connection between music, healing and aging?

M.H.: It’s the vibrations. What happens is when you get older the connections, your neural pathways, the way your brain feels vibrations, those connections are lost sometimes like (people who have) dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, they’re cut — broken. And vibration creates a synthesis inside the cells and kind of reconnects them while the music and the vibrations are playing, so it becomes medicinal. It becomes life enhancing and a remedy.  At least for while the music is playing. We don’t know how to really make it into a longer lasting experience, but that’s what science can tell us. We’re about to break the rhythmic code of DNA about which music does what to which part of the brain. That’s just a few years away.  So we’re learning more and more about what part of the brain is activated by what rhythms, what amplitude.  Music is really becoming quite a science in the field of neuroimaging, neurology and the motor diseases.

S.Z.:. Many people who live on the street are dealing with a mental health and/or addiction issues. Do you think that music therapy could be successfully applied to addiction or harm reduction therapy?

M.H.: Of course. Music is a focus. Music is a tuning system, not just to bring people together to dance and make love, which are two of it’s functions as a ritual. It brings the vibratory essence of the body together and it tunes it, like a tuning fork. That’s what music does.  It can make you happy, it can make you melancholy, it can energize you, it can put you to sleep.  There are a lot of things that music can do that we don’t know about yet. We’ve only been recording music for a little over a hundred years. Of course, we have been playing music since the beginning of time. Our earliest records show that as we became civilized, we used music as a way of expanding and developing our brains and coming together as a people.  Every culture on the planet has music.  There is not one culture that does not have music. That should say something to you.

S.Z.: You have said that music “reconnects” the damaged mind. What then, is the impact on a vibrant mind?

M.H.: It enhances. It exhausts the consciousness. When everything is working right and you add this to the mix, you have a great time, right?  You’re elated, you feel good. It’s a healthy experience, a life-giving thing. That’s what music is about. If you are doing great, music makes you even more powerful.

S.Z.: Music programs in public schools continue to be on the chopping block in many schools’ budgets across the nation.  You have talked about music being a key component to learning. What was your experience, in your youth, with music in the educational system?

M.H.: When you have a healthy organism, you learn. Music stimulates and focuses. Music also allows us to go into the spiritual domain where the important things are to us.

I had a great music teacher in high school, which saved my life and guided me to where I am now. Back then there were a lot of music programs and it allowed me to be who I am. Unfortunately now they’re being ripped away from the schools which is Draconian. It is like a throwback to a civilization that has forgotten what music does and is bankrupt basically.  We’ve become morally and spiritually bankrupt.

Take Einstein. He was really a good musician, you know. He said that (music) was really his first love. He would  play on his violin or piano and then run into his studio and write down a few formulas. Then back to the violin. He used the violin as a way into thinking about the theories, the BIG ones. The big mysterium tremendum:  relativity, time-space, and the matter that we are embedded in.  He used music.

S.Z.: What are your thoughts about the effect that disappearing art and music programs in our schools has on the future of our collective musical consciousness?

M.H.: Yeah. It’s terrible. I mean, you’re nurturing a society that doesn’t really have a way of becoming spiritual and accessing those very important areas of humanity. Music is one of the only things that does it. Taking away music. Many studies show that music increases skill in math, science, technology, engineering, all kinds of skills.  Music is an enhancer of that.  You take music away, you lose the spiritual side and then you also lose everything else that music allows for which is higher learning, advancements in science. Also music stirs the imagination which is really an important thing for the development of any species.  Without imagination, you just dry up and die. You become a thing of the past and you become irrelevant and eventually you will no longer be. So, if you’re talking about a long range view of humanity, I see a very bleak future when you don’t have the arts.  Not just music, but all kinds of arts. Because we were given those arts to become human and stay human and advance as a species.  This takes us back to the Stone Age.

S.Z.: The Grateful Dead were part of the soundtrack to the ‘60s revolution – protests against an overseas lost war and the general disgust with the leadership and war machine overriding the best interest of the people. What do you think of the Occupy movement?

M.H.: Yeah, well they’re just crying out.  They’re screaming, just like we were screaming. Screaming to understand what they stand for and people get desperate. It’s another evolution in the protest. Power to the people. More power to them. If they ever got organized, they could be dangerous. I hope someday that more of those kind of things will happen.

S.Z.: What did the ‘60s and early ‘70s teach this generation in terms of speaking out and changing establishment?

M.H.: You always learn something from something that came before. That’s why you preserve music, that’s why you have history books. When people see other people doing what they might feel, it empowers them. Wow! There’s more of us than I ever thought. That’s the way it was for me in the ‘60s. Once I started seeing the crowds, I said, “Wow it’s not just the five of us.”

There are a whole bunch of people out there that are dancing to our music and believing in some of the things we were trying to say with our music. So it’s important for other people to witness what happened before them and draw their own conclusions on a personal and group level.

S.Z.: Who or what has influenced you most greatly as a musician?

M.H.: I would have to say Pythagoras.  About 400 B.C. he was the father of the science of music. He discovered the octave. And he also gave numerical notations to all of the planets. He saw the planets and the whole universe as the world of sound. The world as a musical instrument. He called it the music of the spheres, or musica universalis. Which is music universe. I would have to say that would be the biggest influence, on a larger level. You know, I’ve had musicians who have influenced me, but Pythagoras is the biggie.

S.Z.: Tell us about the work you have done for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and more recently, with The Smithsonian Institution’s nonprofit record label, Smithsonian Folkways.

M.H.: There are precious recordings that are housed at the Library (of Congress) and the Smithsonian Folkways.  These recordings are endangered.  The discs and different mediums  we have used to record sounds since 1890 are decomposing.  They’re rotting. So it’s a race against time to get these collections and digitize them for the future, forever. This music is not just songs, they’re histories of thousands of years of cultures. The next generation needs some body of work to start their musical career.  Everybody bases their music on somebody that has come before them.  In this case, bodies of work, whether it be the blues, punk, Led Zepplin, Tibetan music, whatever it is. You base it on something that came before you and then eventually if you stay with it the rest for your life, your own skill becomes your own music.

S.Z.: I’ve heard you say that you are “playing with the beginning of time and space now, dancing with the infinite, vibratory universe.” What is that like?

M.H.: You have the feeling that you know what that first vibration was, the thing that created it all. You know when it was and you know where it was. So it gives you a kind of spiritual connection to the whole chain of being, of life, of the universe. And that you’re a part of it. And this is the sound that started it all. Some people might say I’m having a conversation with the creator. I’m having a conversation with a creational moment. If there is a god, its got to be a vibration. It’s a very spiritual experience to be able to interact with the energies that created everything — everything. It’s a very powerful thought, so you just ponder that for a while and you play with it. And somehow it brings you deeper into the heart of music.

2 responses to “Beat of a gypsy Hart: Drummer Mickey Hart and the universe

  1. Pingback: Street Roots: Beat of a gypsy Hart: Drummer Mickey Hart and the universe | MICKEY HART

  2. Pingback: Mysterium Tremendum | Sue Zalokar

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