Perhaps more than any other band, the Grateful Dead was a melting pot, combining a myriad of musical influences (some American, many not) into a kaleidoscope of sound. Powering those experiments was Mickey Hart, forming one-half of the group’s fabled percussion duo the Rhythm Devils, alongside Bill Kreutzmann. As the Devils prepared to hit the road with guitarist Steve Kimock, Phish bassist Mike Gordon and others, Hart reminisced about when foreign rhythms first cast their spell on him.
When did you first hear world music?
Well, there is no such thing as “world music”: It’s the world’s music. It’s culturally specific. It all depends on where you are—if you’re in Papua, New Guinea, Appalachian music is world music to you. But I know what you’re alluding to: You’re talking about something non-Western, basically. Well, I guess it would be the clave, and it would have to be Tito Puente and all those great Latin players in New York in the ’50s. I grew up in New York, and at that time, there was like a cultural explosion, where all these people were migrating to New York and they were mixing the African rhythms and the rhythms from Puerto Rico and Cuba, especially. And the clave was being reborn, using horns and set into the jazz medium. Also, in the indigenous mediums as well—the merengue, cha-cha, mambos. That was my first hit of what you call world music.
When did you start playing non-Western rhythms?
I started playing timbales and shakers and guiro, and I worked in a restaurant at Atlantic Beach [in the suburbs of Manhattan, in Nassau County], where Tito Puente was playing upstairs in the ballroom. At night, Tito used to let me come backstage and play guiro and shakers, behind the bandstand. I was too young to be on the bandstand—I was a kid, 13 or 14 years old.
What effect did that have on you?
I saw the trance, the ecstatic trance, and that’s what really connected me. I saw these people dancing all night...There were all kinds of very powerful rhythms being played and nobody except the practitioners knew what they were handling. It was like fire in the hands of these white suburban people. The Latin music was coming into suburbia, and into the urban cities, and igniting their white souls, and I was watching it, as it was happening, and I was attracted as well.
When you’re playing, what do you find yourself thinking about?
There’s no thinking. When you’re thinking, you’re just beating stuff up, and that’s an intellectual pursuit. I’m after the trance, and in the trance, you don’t think—the drum tells you what to do. You just go and do it. If you have you enough skill, and you’re in the right frame of mind, and you’re entrained with the drum, and you’re in sync in the moment, you could get everything: the pains, or the bills, or the fight you had with your kid. But when you get in the trance, there’s no thinking there. The only thinking you do is say to yourself, “Relax and stay where you are. Don’t go anywhere. Just relax and ride this magic carpet.” And you know it’s magic, and magic is fleeting, and that’s the only thing I’m really after. We know that rhythm connects us to the infinite. We know it connects us to our soul, we know it alters our consciousness it’s a transformative power.
Is there anything that you learned from Tito that you sometimes find yourself still playing today?
It was more like a sensibility that I picked from him: the way he moved around the timbales and picked up his notes. You know, you usually base your knowledge on something that happened before...So do I think of Tito, from time to time? I do. Do I try to copy his licks? No, because those were rhythms for another day. This is a new day.
Are great drummers born with a gift for rhythm?
I think it’s genetic. I’m coded to scan for rhythms. I know that’s in my DNA.
What’s currently on your iPod?