Delving Into the Core of Rhythm
Grateful Dead band member attempts to demystify drumming in a new book and CD
NEW YORK — FOR years, Mickey Hart has followed the beat of drums around the world with a tape recorder. Hart, drummer for the straight-down-the middle American Grateful Dead, surprisingly has had his nose in drumming exotica for as long as he can remember: the ecstatic ritual use of drums in non-Western cultures, the connections of drumming to shamanism and mother goddess religions of ancient times, and the lore and myths surrounding drums through the ages.
The results of some of Hart's recording work have been released on the independent label Rykodisc as ``World Series.''
Now Hart has come out with a book, ``Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion,'' (San Francisco, Harper & Row, paper: $19.95, cloth: $35) and a companion CD, ``At the Edge'' (Rykodisc), original, percussion-based music that sprang out of various aspects of rhythm from different cultures.
In an interview here, Hart explained that what he's tried to do is demystify the ``spirit side'' of drumming, so that it doesn't come off as ``a lot of cosmic mumbo-jumbo.''
To explain what actually happens in group drumming, Hart has chosen the word ``entrainment,'' from the Law of Entrainment discovered in 1665 by a Dutch scientist. Entrainment means various rhythms coming together and ending up in synchrony. Rhythmic entrainment, as Hart maintains in his book, is fundamental to mankind, since man himself is a ``multi-dimensional rhythm machine.''
``This is something that's been around forever - it's prehistoric - man's need to make rhythm,'' says Hart, approaching his subject with an earnest intensity. ``The book is really exploring the world of rhythm, and how rhythm affects man.''
Nevertheless, in many Western cultures, drumming has traditionally been frowned upon as something primitive, almost savage. Hart believes that this negative attitude comes from the fear that drumming is capable of transporting people into other levels of consciousness - something which he, as a musician and drummer, has often experienced.
``When I'm on stage, sometimes [the music] flips into the world of the miraculous and the marvelous,'' he says. ``And that's what you look for in music: You look to transcend. Once you feel the magic, you know it's a privilege to be a musician - you don't take it lightly anymore.''
Hart says it took him ten years to be able to articulate these ideas into a book - after lengthy and often quite scholarly research - without making the book seem dry and intellectual.
``I had to spit it back out from a personal view so it would be an adventure story and not an ethnomusicological tome.''
So Hart talks quite a bit about his family background (both his parents were drummers), and his experiences delving into drum lore. He says that because of the mechanization of the world, we've lost the concept of rhythmic entrainment, and music has become just entertainment.
``The core musics of the world are hanging on by a thread,'' he says. Nevertheless, there are signs that people are looking for ways to use music and percussion in a deeper way.
Percussion and drumming ensembles are popping up everywhere, and, says Hart, ``The kids with the ghetto blasters are entraining - that backbeat is coming right from Yoruba straight to you, baby. Right up from Bahia through the Caribbean, up through the parishes of New Orleans, straight into your heart.''
In the book, Hart combines history, illustration, and personal anecdotes to introduce the spirit of rhythm and percussion - ``a giant preface,'' he says, to his next book, out next year, titled ``Planet Drum,'' which will have an accompanying CD containing samples of world percussion.
``It's a pictorial survey of the world's percussion,'' says Hart.
``I think it's the basic nature of mankind ... to entrain with rhythm. People are just beginning to come to grips with what music is really meant to do,'' he says. ``Every culture has done it throughout history, so there's something to this. This is not random.''
Besides, says Hart, ``you have to remember that all this stuff is also big-time fun!''