King of Rhythms

Catching up with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, still on that long, strange trip

Hart has the power to access the thousands of instruments and drum sounds he has collected over the years thanks to RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe), a custom-built rig that looks something like a xylophone on steroids. "RAMU is my sound droid, my robot," Hart says. "I hit pressure-sensitive pads on it, and it triggers my computer. I can be an elephant. I can be crushed glass. I can be a gamelan. I can be a panpipe. I can be anything. It offers me utter freedom. It's a MIDI'd instrument, so I can combine any sound with any other sound and make instruments that are unsung and unborn. It's the most exciting creature in my life, aside from my wife and kids."

For years, Hart has been a tireless advocate of world music. His Planet Drum album, in fact, won the very first world-music Grammy. Although it's OK to like the exotic sounds from distant locales these days, it wasn't always so. "Now world music is popular," Hart says. "Back then, it wasn't. I mean, I couldn't give the stuff away. When someone in my family got married, had a baby or some special occasion, I would give them music I recorded in Egypt or something, and many times they would leave the cassette on the table. They thought it was junk or third-rate music. I've been doing this since the '60s and '70s. The face of world music and its value has changed dramatically over the years."

So, too, has the value of Grateful Dead music, which is perhaps more popular now than ever, even though the group disbanded after the death of Jerry Garcia. Hart has participated in the brief reunion tour, on which the Dead survivors dubbed themselves the Other Ones. Although he says he enjoyed that, more as a "casual encounter" than anything else, Hart remains more enthusiastic about the continued outpouring of the Dead's archival material. Volume 17 of the Dick's Picks series was just released, and last year saw the arrival of So Many Roads, a five-disc set of previously unissued performances.

Mickey Hart: His passion boils down to the beauty of rhythm, whether it's the sound of his own heart beating or the sound of a single solitary drum.
Mickey Hart: His passion boils down to the beauty of rhythm, whether it's the sound of his own heart beating or the sound of a single solitary drum.

"I love it, and the Deadheads love it," Hart says. "Not everybody was able to be at every concert except us, and we don't remember any of it! We just know we did it. I love to hear what we did, and so do they. And here they can hear the best possible versions of it. We're about to digitize our whole collection and start releasing it. I want to do it in my lifetime. It's almost 2,000 shows that were recorded."

Hart is at work digitizing more than the Grateful Dead catalog these days. He's on the board of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. It may be a sign of how times have changed that a leading light of the '60s counterculture is now a government appointee, but Hart takes his work very seriously. "The center has the largest repository of indigenous music from around the world in one place. Not just information, but the musical component of the library is huge -- millions of hours of music. A lot of it is in danger. Some of it is rare and is lost to the new generation of indigenous people, and some of it is just decomposing because of mold or what have you. These are great treasures, just masterpieces of sound. My job is to digitize them and to make them accessible via the Internet, so that's what I'm doing."

For Hart, though, his passion still boils down to the beauty of rhythm, whether it's the sound of his own heart beating -- which he concentrates on to center himself before playing -- or the sound of a single solitary drum. He even has a favorite instrument -- an Egyptian hand drum called a tar. "I carry it with me everywhere," he says. "I take it on the road, because it's real quiet. I can play it in hotel rooms and airports and it doesn't bother anybody. It's very delicate, the soft side of percussion. I don't like to beat the drum so much; I like to caress them and make love to them. It makes me feel so much better."

The Mickey Hart Band performs at the Firehouse on Saturday, May 27.

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