Mickey Hart: Mapping The Groove Of The Future (Relix Revisited)
Richard B. Simon’s feature on Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain originally appeared in a special digital editon of Relix in October 2007
Photo by John Werner
Mickey Hart’s ranch in the hills of rural Sonoma County is about as idyllic a setting as you can find. You can smell the golden sun baking the earth, drying out the grasses and the oaks. Chimes talk in the breeze. Somewhere beyond the trees beyond the pond, a donkey brays. But the gravel driveway is full of trucks and campers, and the barn brims with activity. Equipment wranglers are doing their thing. Drumming is happening. In somebody else’s reality, the neighbors would be complaining. But this is Mickey Hart’s place, and it is a locus for the world’s finest percussionists.
On a fine September Saturday morning. Hart, tabla master Zakir Hussain, Puerto Rican congalero Giovanni Hidalgo, and Nigerian talking drum virtuoso Sikiru Adepoju are preparing to hit the road as the Global Drum Project. The foursome toured last year to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Planet Drum, their groundbreaking 1991 percussion album that earned the first-ever World Music Grammy. While they were at it, they went into the studio and recorded the infectious and melodic Global Drum Project.
Global Drum expands on the Planet Drum concept—an orchestra of master percussionists from different cultures improvising together—by adding an electronic counterpart that allows them to sample and loop themselves live, keeping the groove going while they explore further, or feed back. It builds on lessons Hart learned with Hydra, a 2005 project that paired him with the jamtronica band Particle. Hydra’s musicians were linked together digitally, through Hart’s Random Access Multiple Universe, a computer that can call up the sampled sound of any instrument in Hart’s vast collection. They could also summon sampled beats to call a new tempo to the fore.
The Global Drum Project strips the concept down; this time, they’ll all be speaking in percussion. The key is that the percussionists are masters of rhythmic time—rendering more permeable the boundary between time-based looped samples and palms on animal skins.
“Zakir, of course, is probably the most advanced rhythmist on the planet,” Hart is explaining. He’s taken a break to talk in his airy upstairs office, which looks out onto a jungle-like garden. His accomplices are tuning the drums and getting the levels right in the vaulted barn-studio below. Beats filter up through the wooden walls.
“And then you’ve got Giovanni—of the same caliber, only from the world of Latin percussion. You know, these guys are deities in their own cultures. And then Sikiru, he’s the Mozart of his instrument, which is the talking drum, from Nigeria. So you’ve got Africa, Puerto Rico, Latin America, India, and I give it the backbeat, rock you back and forth. So those are four very powerful rhythmic traditions, in the groove, together.”
And because the percussionists come from classical traditions, in which the rhythms have been practiced for centuries, along established rules, their drumming is extremely precise. The language of traditional Indian tabla, Hart says, is as exact as that of a European symphony, with recognizable rules, riffs, and rhythms.
That’s when Hussain joins us.
“I mean Zakir’s a classical player,” Hart says, “and he brings a lot of that …”
“Are you trying to insult me?” Hussain chuckles.
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