Mickey Hart: In The Groove Again with Planet Drum
Giovanni Hidalgo, Zakir Hussain, Mickey Hart, Sikiru Adepoju (Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg)
“The original Planet Drum was based on cultures coming together in rhythm and being a model for that,” Mickey Hart says of the project he initiated in 1990, after inviting percussion masters from across the world to join him in the studio.
The globe-spanning ensemble—including Zakir Hussain (India), Sikiru Adepoju (Nigeria) and Giovanni Hidalgo (Puerto Rico)—came together for the elevated improvisational sessions that yielded the Planet Drum record, which received the first-ever Best World Music Album Grammy and topped the Billboard World Music Album charts for 26 weeks.
Planet Drum explored new textures on 1998’s Supralingua, the aptly titled record which means “beyond language.” Then, in 2007, Hart, Hussain, Adepoju and Hidalgo reconvened for the Global Drum Project, which also received a World Music Grammy.
Fifteen years later, Planet Drum has returned with In The Groove. Hart explains that ongoing international strife prompted the decision to set the percussion collective in motion once again.
“Music creates a virtual world outside of normal consciousness, where you find empathy and love,” Hart proclaims. “With all the rage and hate going on, rhythm offers an incredible musical opportunity that is the opposite of that. The world is a place of war with struggles of all kinds running rampant—pandemic, greed and corruption. Goodwill can be seen as a positive, collective rhythm moment. It’s filled with joy. It’s serendipity. It’s a celebration of diversity. That’s what music and rhythm are all about. It offers peace between people. That’s what makes Planet Drum so powerful. It’s a rhythmmachine extraordinaire.”
Did a specific event prompt you to revisit Planet Drum?
We all feel the pain of the world, and this is a way to alleviate some of that. Sometimes it feels like everybody has their little place that they’re hiding out in, so they don’t learn about other cultures and share in the stories, hardships and joy—especially joy—of those different cultures. When you see a band like this playing together—representing different cultures from all over the world—it demonstrates that it can be done.
I still see a time when the Republicans and Democrats can get together in rhythm. I’ve always thought that a good rhythm experience between the Democrats and the Republicans would really help. After playing with someone else, you understand them more and have good feelings about them. So drums in the hands of Republicans and Democrats just might help.
That’s why I pulled this thing together now. It seemed to be the right time and the pandemic gave us an opportunity. Some of this was done online, as well as in the studio. We had hundreds of sessions online, trying to find our way through this new rhythm that we’re trying to make. We are trying to make it in a way where it is more danceoriented music. The grooves are deep drumming grooves, but they have melody to them; they’re all tuned. This is tuned percussion. It’s not just atonal.
Playing with masters like Zakir, Giovanni and Sikiru is humbling, but it’s also lifereaffirming. These players have something in common—they’re the best at what they do. There is no one better on their instruments than Giovanni, Zakir or Sikiru—Giovanni on conga, Zakir on tabla and Sikiru on talking drum, along with almost anything they touch.
In other cultures, musicians are revered. Not so much in this culture, but in other cultures, music is close to God or the spiritual domain, the spirit world, the sacred dimension—whatever you call it. So musicians are the carriers in between man and a higher power—the creational force.
Rhythm and music are how we make sense of life. It’s as simple as that because all of this is actually from a primal source—the big bang 13.8 billion years ago. That explosion—that moment, that singularity—is still washing over us. The whole universe is about vibration, which is the basic element to life. And music represents all of that. It’s a miniature of what’s happening in the cosmos. That’s why we make music. As Carl Sagan said, “The carbon in your cheesecake came from a star that exploded billions of years ago.” So all of these materials—the things that formed the universe—are in us and that shapes us every day.
Music is about neurologic function. It’s about brainwaves. The brain is the master clock. So in rhythm, you entrain with your own brain and you create a virtual reality outside of music.
That’s what’s so powerful about these rhythms. And, when they’re played by this family of drummers, percussionist and rhythmists, it’s like going to heaven.
Giovanni Hidalgo’s recovery after losing portions of his fingers to diabetes complications is remarkable.
Giovanni is a rhythm miracle. Nobody is like Giovanni. He’s a virtuoso player. He’s a musical savant. His knowledge is so deep and his technique is so flawless that he lives in the world where Zakir and Sikiru live. They’re virtuoso players unto themselves. They breathe a different air. They are so skilled at rhythmic dexterity, and so knowledgeable about their instruments, that they are the Yo-Yo Mas of their instruments.
Giovanni was Dizzy Gillespie’s band leader. He knows all the rhythms of South America, Cuba, Puerto Rico and jazz. Nobody is like Giovanni. There are conga players and then there’s Giovanni.
When he was losing these pieces of his fingers due to diabetes, my heart was breaking. I couldn’t believe that it was happening to someone who uses his hands like this. I also didn’t know if his spirit would die inside of him or if he would be able to face his injuries and come back in any sort of way. Then, all of a sudden, I got a call and he told me about this new technique he’s using with sticks. It’s a hand technique that he learned when he was a kid, and he’s been practicing every day for six hours. So what he’s done is reinvent himself. He has such incredible spirit that he would not let anything come between him and his drum and the music that we make.
Everything he touches is in rhythm. People like Giovanni, Zakir and Sikiru don’t make mistakes. That’s the thing about them—I mean not real mistakes. Normal people like me and everybody else, we make plenty of mistakes. These guys, they don’t make mistakes.
So it really amazed me. I was fascinated by it. He came out here for a session and we could see, “Whoa, here he is, he’s back raging again.” That spirit was there and his technique became a whole new kind of playing and I loved it. He’s ready to face his problems and go beyond them. He’s found the strength—in the rhythm and the music and Planet Drum—to be able to enjoy the thing that he loves the most with the people he loves the most and bring it to the world.
He’s very serious, as I am, about bringing good rhythm into the world, better rhythm— more empathy, more love. Most musicians, I think, feel that way. In these times, music could be one of the things that saves the human race. There’s no doubt about it. There will always be music. Every culture in the world has some music. There’s a reason for that. Music has plenty of power, as Marley would say. Serious musicians understand that, especially performers like Giovanni, Sikiru and Zakir.
How would you describe the nature of the musical conversations that ensued when the four of you were back together in the same room, given everything you’ve done together in the past along with your individual explorations over the intervening years?
Well, it raises consciousness. This is a consciousness-raising trance band. That’s what it does. Just like in the old days, as soon as one person starts a groove, it’s a conversation and it’s an intimate conversation. You delight in remembering some of the older rhythms that you played back then, and it just pops up out of nowhere. So you smile and you have this intimate knowledge of each other. Then you take that and you create something new and wonderful with the knowledge and the feelings that you have for each other.
What does it feel like? It feels like a really good LSD trip or taking mushrooms or something like that. It’s a consciousness-raising event that changes you forever. When you play in grooves like that with these kinds of people, it’s so special. It’s very high. You have quite a psychedelic experience.
Did you enter these sessions with a particular idea of where you wanted the music to go?
This was going to be a dance record. We’ve had other records that were space records; this one was going be a combination of space and dance. It has spatial qualities, but I wanted people to get up and dance so that they would not only be in their head, but also in their heart and in their feet. That was my objective going into it.
I had an idea of what I wanted to do and everybody fell right in. They loved it. This band is an organism where it’s easy to tune your nature with that of nature. By tuning yourself into each other, you become really big and something else happens—a whole other thing. That’s what makes a band a band. It becomes whatever it’s going to be. So we had a very uplifting time with it, just like the first one, which was all first takes.
The technology available to you has evolved since that first Planet Drum album. Can you talk about your approach to blending acoustic and electronic elements in this setting?
There’s the idea of representing the drum in its glory, in its original indigenous form, played in the grooves that it was made for. There’s an argument for that and I’ve done that on many of my records.
For me, in this moment, though, it’s not necessarily about a great djembe sound; it’s about how that sound moves me. By using that drum as the basis of operations that triggers some other kind of processing, I can take that djembe, or any drum, and transform it into an orchestra or something much larger or different.
I take that out of its context and into another world, but I’m able to control it with a drum as I take it out into space, into another place of sonic wonder. That’s what you can do now if you’re versed in these advanced techniques. I live in the studio and I just love the studio. I work in it every day, pretty much.
This record took a couple years of work. These are not just jams—they are little gems that were carefully curated.
That’s how I find these processes. You work them and stumble on them. It takes a lot of time to get to these rare spaces.
This record was time-consuming because it’s so articulate and it’s so spatially crystallized. It just sparkles. You can hear everything and sometimes you don’t even know what instrument you’re hearing. So that’s also a mystery. You’ll probably never figure out what instrument is playing all the time. With some instruments you definitely know what’s playing, but you still don’t know what they’re triggering.
The players love it because it’s an extension of their instrument. They’re masters of the instrument, they’re technically proficient beyond belief and now they’re transforming their instrument to yet another level.
What are the origins of “Phil Da Glass” on the new record?
Both Zakir and I know Phil Glass. He’s been to my home— we’ve had dinner together. I did the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta with Phil Glass. He was part of the first 10 minutes of the opening ceremonies. Phil worked on that with me.
“Phil Da Glass” was actually Zakir’s title. Phil Glass took lessons from Alla Rakha, Zakir’s father. It’s a beautiful title.
Phil is what they call a minimalist. He doesn’t play a lot of the same notes. He uses different cycles and all kinds of things like that. So that was the idea behind “Phil Da Glass.” If you count it out, you will understand how intricate it is. It corresponds to his thinking of how music and rhythm plays out.
“Phil Da Glass” has a rhythmic origin, and it’s counted in odd time signatures. It’s also redundant in the way that Phil Glass does it—like a very intricate clock that makes you stand still. That’s what Phil does. He makes you stand still and listen and focus and fall into the music. He’s not all over the map—he’s right there. He stays there and he changes things very slightly over time— not a big change, just little changes, and it draws you in.
Did you name these songs in advance, after the fact or while they were in process? Did that inform the music in any way?
What happens is that something is played and then it tells me its name. With “Tides,” for instance, I sonified the San Francisco Bay tide movements. I took that data and turned it into sound, so that named itself—“OK, I’m using tides as a sequence, so it’s called ‘Tides.’”
I don’t normally name it before I play it. I just see what it sounds like. Although “Phil Da Glass” was named before we entirely knew what we were doing.
How about “Gadago Gadago?”
That one is named after my wife Caryl. She’s always on the move. She’s on the California Coastal Commission; she’s got all of these causes that she’s working on and she’s always saying, “I gotta go, I gotta go!”
She walked in as I was making it up and said, “Gotta go, gotta go!” So that’s how that song got its name. It was fast and it was keyed by that.
Different songs are keyed by events in my life and sometimes in my dreams. Dreaming is big for me. I have lucid dreams, and I usually remember my dreams in some way. I find inspiration in them—things come to me when I wake up in the morning. So I always listen to my dreams. They really inform me.
As you’re creating these songs, is there a clear narrative that comes to mind or is it something more ineffable or elusive?
They’re basically rhythm dreams. Most things in my dreams have rhythms in them—not necessarily drums and drumming, but there’s a rhythmic factor to them.
I think of the world in rhythmic terms. If I have a fight with my wife or my kid, I’ll say, “Oh, we’re out of rhythm; let’s get back in rhythm. Let’s find the rhythm again.”
That’s how I look at things. So it seems normal to dream rhythmic dreams. The idea is to be able to interpret your dreams and turn your dreams into a form that you can share with other people. A dream is a spirit. It’s a thought. You can’t really share that with anyone physically. You can tell them about it, but can you turn that dream into reality where you can actually share it and communicate it with someone? With music, you can do that. So a big part of my world is the rhythm of things because that’s everything. Without good rhythm, the world would come to an end.
Everything is in rhythm in the universe. Your body is a rhythm machine, and it’s a very elaborate and unique and precious one—vibration is a big factor in keeping it healthy.
I can still play for three hours a night. I’m 78 years old. I feel great. I practice every day. I play every day. So I live a rhythmic life.
I don’t just play drums, rhythm is my focus—not just drums and drumming, but the rhythm of things in life because you can’t drum all day. I mean you can. I’ve done long-distance drumming. When no one disturbs me, I can do 12-14 hours at a crack. I’ll just have some water, smoke some good cannabis and drum. I can stay there for a long time. But, normally, I’ll do 3-5 hours a day.
It’s like floating. You go into a trance after X amount of time—30 minutes or 45 minutes or whatever it is for you. Then, it’s just clear sailing after that and you can go, go, go as long you’re in shape. You have to be in shape to go long distance. I’ve always loved to do that. Grateful Dead played long and hard. So long-distance drumming was something that I was always fond of.
As long as I’m not interrupted, I can do those long distance things, which are fun. They bring a lot of joy to me. I’m very calm when I do it. Then, after a while, I break through and I’m clear. It’s just like meditating. All of a sudden, you’re floating. You are in a whole other world and you feel good. Everything is working—your mind, your body. Your heart is pumping. It’s all in rhythm. And when you’re in rhythm, you become very happy, which is the key because happiness is drumming to me. If I want to be happy, I must drum.
On May 1, you returned to the stage with Planet Drum for a show at the Frost Amphitheatre, in which you debuted some of the material from In the Groove. What is your approach to bringing these songs into the live setting?
With our MIDI capabilities and all the processing that RAMU is capable of, this music all can be played live. I basically have a digital workstation with the beam—the monochord and all of the drones and electronics. Most of it comes from a percussive source.
Being there with Planet Drum, it felt really great to be able to share the rhythm live and be able to see the audience move as soon as we started. They started dancing and I thought we broke the ice. This is very complicated. It’s not a simple three guitars and a drum set. The stage is full of unique percussive instruments from all over the world.
I felt really good, and I felt clean and it’s just the beginning. We’re not messing around. Like I said, it’s a rhythm machine extraordinaire. I don’t know how long it’ll be around but, for now, it’s the most powerful rhythmic event that I can experience. It’s a rhythm band but it has melody to it. It has voices and a backbeat and it’s also like jazz—very much like Grateful Dead. This is rhythm jazz, so you can dance to it.
Everybody is fluid and, when you play with musicians who are fluid, it becomes a joy. You’re able to flow from one idea to another seamlessly, which is the basis of jamming.
We’re great friends and have a great foundation to play this kind of music. We love each other and we have a wonderful respect for each other. If you don’t have this feeling towards someone, you can’t play with them.
It’s like me and Bill. I have a deep love for him. We’ve shared the groove for over 50 years. So we know each other pretty well and there’s something between us that’s unique.
With Planet Drum, this is the right rhythm for the right time. People can enjoy it and they don’t have to think too much about it. But, then, if they want to do deep listening, this record has many layers. It’s that kind of construct where, after you’ve listened to it, you will hear all of these things that took so long to do. It’s very arabesque in a way— it’s things within things, within things, within things. I’m really glad that everybody’s finally going to get a chance to listen to this baby.