Global Drum Project (L-R): Giovanni Hidalgo,
Zakir Hussain, Mickey Hart and Sikiru Adepoju.
Photo: John Werner © 2006
Like most of the projects Mickey has been involved with, Global Drum Project represents a joyful and spiritual union of the primal and the modern—percussion and technology. At its heart are rhythms pounded, banged, shaken and tapped on an incredible array of instruments that live in the giant main room of Mickey’s Studio X in rural Sonoma County, Calif. But beyond the pure rhythms—both primitive and sophisticated—the sounds were often treated in subtle and extreme ways, with Mickey and Zakir adding assorted reverbs, delays and layers of electronic processing in real time as the pieces were performed in the studio. This is a path Mickey has been following since his days in the Grateful Dead, of course, culminating a few years back with the development of his complex RAMU system, which allows him to manipulate his percussion work in unprecedented ways as he plays.
There’s a marvelous sense of dimensionality to the music on Global Drum Project; at the same time it feels very intimate. As you might expect, there are influences from many cultures here—African, Indian, Middle Eastern, South Pacific, etc.—all blended into a wondrous fusion that has its own personality. There are parts of tracks that have a sort of modern trance vibe to them; others feel ancient-hypnotic. There’s electronically altered sitar that sounds like electric guitar; bits of radio broadcasts sneaking in and out deep in the mix on a couple of pieces; voices from the New Guinea rainforest; tars joined in a rapid heartbeat; even a bubbling vocal from the late, great Babtunde Olatunji on the leadoff tune. In short, it’s just another voyage into the cool beyond with Mickey and friends.
On September 16, I drove up to Studio X to interview Mickey and Zakir about Global Drum Project (and whatever else came up). Mickey’s spread includes the sprawling ranch house he shares with his wife (and manager) Caryl, the state-of-the-art studio (which is in its own building), a Japanese garden, a small lake…it’s quite a slice of paradise, and considerably more uptown than his famous Novato ranch of yesteryear. When I arrived at the studio, Zakir was working with the group’s live sound engineer on some preparations for the Global Drum Project tour, which began September 20 at the University of Arizona and goes through late October. (For a complete listing of tour dates, click here). So Mickey and I adjourned to his office above the studio’s control room, and started the interview without Zakir; he joined us after a few minutes. Outside, in some fields behind the studio, I could see llamas munching on dry grass, while hawks made circles in the clear blue skies above a nearby grove of trees…
Giovanni, Mickey, Zakir and Sikiru in action. Photo: John Werner © 2006
When you’re going out on tour to promote an album like this, it’s not quite the same as when you’re promoting an album of “songs.” How fully formed do they feel in the sense of being “performable”?
They’re all performable. That was part of the challenge and part of the adventure: Taking all these sophisticated and extreme [electronic] processes and being able to dance with them on the road and actually create a percussion orchestra—or gamelan—and have fun with it and not let the machines tear you apart. So we’re triggering all our loops and doing sound-on-sound and things like that. Instead of overdubs like in the studio, we can do it live and be facile with it. With something like Baba’s vocal [on “Baba”], it would be very difficult to bring him back for a return engagement, and of course the beautiful voices from the Papua New Guinea rain forest—that would be difficult as well, since Stephen Feld recorded them so beautifully. So we licensed them. We take care of the people who made it and honor them, give money back to them. And then musically we’re able to go around the world to the rainforest and other places we normally couldn’t go to.
When I was up here about a year ago interviewing you for my Grateful Dead Gear book you were showing me a new thing you had within your setup where you were randomly turning into radio stations and then altering the signal as it came through.
Yeah, that’s on the CD. I’ve actually got it working now! That’s really great, and it’s all about randomness. I turn on the radio and tune it into whatever I want to—in the case of this CD it was 740, the local AM news station. You don’t know what’s coming up so it’s random. Obviously you could tune it into a Chinese station or a political talk show or anything. Then you put it through a delay, some reverb, or you can tap in delay factors in at whatever tempo you want.
I knew it was on the recording but didn’t know whether what’s on there was random or placed there.
No, it was random and then I flew it in. I mean, I chose that over some others, but I didn’t choose it because it was so meaningful or something. I wasn’t going for the literal translation.
Is there a typical way that the sessions for this album occurred? Would you arrive at the beginning of an afternoon or evening and say “Here’s the kind of space we’re going to try to investigate this time”?
Usually it comes from a dream, so I’ll have some kind of notion: “I want to do something on The Beam.” So I dial up something that is pleasing or interesting, or I find a space Zak and I want to go to and Zakir will respond to that. Or he’ll do the same thing: He’ll come in with a rhythm and then I will respond to the rhythm and we’ll build it from there. Or there’s a Giovanni track or a Sikiru thing. In the case of “Baba,” it was the Giovanni vocal and the Baba track that started it. Or I’ll have a loop.
Where did the Olatunji vocal come from?
They came from some sessions we did in the early ’90s, after the first Planet Drum. He came by from time to time—[smiling] in fact he still visits—and I’m always rolling tape, as you know, so this is one I put away for a rainy day, so to speak. It was so charming. It’s basically just him speaking gibberish and laughing, but it has so much of his spirit in it. I used to call it our secret language.
Right, it was in the Supralingua. That’s sort of the idea of the supralingua: Beyond words, beyond language.
So it started with that tape and then you built around it?
Right. Giovanni came in with that dum-de-doo-d-dum-do-do-do-do, then I drop the octave and put a subharmonic thing on it so it sounds like bass…
How edited are these performances? They’re pretty compact. One would sense that at the time maybe they were all a lot longer.
Oh, they go on for hours! [Laughs] They’re all performances, and what we do is take a piece of the performance; you take a chunk of it, six or eight minutes, and refine that and work with it a little more. These guys [the musicians] are so good; they’re better than machines because they live, they breathe. That’s why they don’t sound like robots. Of course it’s edited because once we start we go for hours and you slip in and out of different places.
You know who used to do this kind of thing? The band War. They used to play and play and work on these grooves and then at some point they’d go back and chop a section out and it would become a song.
Miles Davis, too—the way [producer] Teo Macero would go into the tapes and chop out hunks.
Sure. Lots of people do that. The Grateful Dead used to do it. You play and play and play and there’s a sweet spot you come to in the middle or the end or wherever and you say, “OK, here’s ten or 15 good minutes,” and then you find the sweet spot in that and you bring it down.
Do you keep track of all this in your mind?
Yes. I have a memory for that. I concentrate and focus on this every day. I go into the studio every day and do something.
Do you ever note it and deal with it right after it’s occurred?
Not usually. There’s a playing time and there’s an editing time, and they’re not typically in the same moment. Because I like to sit with it a little. I’ll make a rough mix later and then play it in different environments. I’ll play it in the car or in my house. I’ll broadcast it on a little FM frequency so I can hear it on a transistor radio around the property.
When you’re recording at all times, how do you determine when a body of work is worthy of starting an album? Because I know you have people up here all the time and in different configurations; people come up and jam…
Well, first of all, I put it all away. I never erase anything. That’s the first thing you should know: This is a recording studio, not an erasing studio. It’s all on hard drives and backed up. Some things I recorded in 1995, say, really didn’t make it into my consciousness or my repertoire; maybe they didn’t feel like urgent musicological statements at the time. But I make CDs out all of them and put them away. I have a whole building with walls lined with CDs and DATs and multitracks. I always burn CDs at the end of the day. On my desk each morning is the previous day’s work. A lot of times I listen to them; sometimes I don’t. Sometimes something will pop out and I’ll go, “Wow, let’s either use this or go back and do this right.” I call them “sound safaris.”
There’s my headline: “On Sound Safari with Mickey Hart”
The sound safaris started when I used to go out to Tower Records or Virgin or wherever and sample the world’s music by buying a few hundred bucks of random world music that I’d never heard. Those were sound safaris. Then it became my personal sound safaris that I recorded or collected, and I code them and number them, and I have a big database so they’re all accessible to me. There was a point where I felt like I was just overrun with stuff—“Oh my God, how can I keep track of all this?” Because if you don’t know what it is and where it is, you’re just collecting stuff for no reason and you can’t reference it. So we developed a library data base to keep track of it all and it’s worked out great. Now I can easily go back to that ’95 material and see if something in there means more to me now.
There are great periods of your music that have not been represented on commercial CDs, like Bembe Orisha, which I thought was a great band…
It was, but it was really best as a performance band. It was definitely time very well spent, but it never quite reached that place where I wanted to put my stamp on it in the commercial world and say, “This is what I sound like and this is where I want to go.” Playing it was a joy but it never made it to the next level.
[Zakir arrives from the studio downstairs.]
So, getting back to the new CD, you gave a call to Zakir and said, “It’s time!”?
It’s time to drum! But we know each other so well and we’re in touch all the time. The thing, he’s on a different continent every weekend. The hardest thing is not playing and composing with him. The hard part is getting all of us together at the same time because they’re all over the map. Yeah, it was time. We haven’t had a real serious work together in many years.
Like Spirit into Sound?
No, no. That was just an addendum to the book, a few little loose things.
I don’t know what you consider “serious.” I thought it was pretty cool.
It was cool, but it wasn’t serious. Jimmy Buffett told me he gets massaged to it every day. I love it! [Laughs]
Zakir: He gets a massage every day? I don’t think I’m getting enough massages. I haven’t had one in about a year. [Laughs]
How about Superlingua? That was serious.
M: That was a serious work. But it wasn’t really a co-composition.
Z: Most of what emerges or finally arrives to be recorded is a thought; it’s an idea or a vision or it’s a sonic dream that comes, and it usually emerges from the crazy mind of Mickey Hart.
M: The great and evil mind of Mickey Hart.
Z: And you get a call: “I have this thought…” “Oh yeah? OK.” And then you arrive here and there’s one little thing that Mickey has discovered. It might just be a bell being hit. Just a bell being hit, but suddenly you are inside the bell; suddenly you’re seeing every little groove that the carver had made into it and you can see it all vibrate and you can see all the harmonics that bell is putting out, even though it’s one tone. And suddenly it’s not just a point, it’s a line and that leads somewhere. That’s what my experience with Mickey has been—to get inside each instrument and discover that world.
Do you remember what the point was on this album?
Z: It was in fact in that room downstairs that Mickey called me in and said, “Listen to this,” and it was a metal bell—ding-ding-da-ding—and then it went from that to being something else altogether. It was a mutant X-Men bell. [Laughs] An X-Bell, and it morphed into a different tonal texture and went somewhere else and it became rhythmic and a pulse appeared in it and all from that one little stroke. And that was the beginning of this crazy idea.
M: That was the literal place this album started, but the overall vision was: We’ve done acoustic records slightly processed, but now with the smart machines, the thought was to take it out and process it very sophisticated, with Echo Boy and different technologies. Now you can play into the process and perform the processes, instead of doing it in post [-production]. So we thought that would be a worthy thing to go after, instead of just putting reverb on it and echo and delay and all that, but actually come up with some sort of soundscape that we would go inside of and develop, with all the filigree and arabesques that you can create in that kind of sonic architecture. And do it in real time. So that was the overview.
I would think that being able to do it all in real time would change how you think about playing.
M: You’re not thinking about fixing it in the mix. The way it is, is the way you played it.
Z: It’s like playing against a wall, or playing the Taj Mahal. [In the Taj Mahal] you hit a note and it goes on for 16 seconds, so when that happens you play accordingly. You react to what has happened and you move the sound in different ways. So that’s basically what was going on here.
When you hit a drum and you’re over there, you hear a boom. But when you put your ear to it there’s a whole different world of sound that appears. You hear it in layers and you hear it in its multidimensional harmonics. Just imagine all the different harmonics of each instrument and they’re all traveling together. Sometimes you hit it and you hear the top tone and the tone that ends it, and you work with those. But here you’ve got all these different frequencies and they are all running simultaneously in different ways—curves, braids, and all that’s happening live. If I’m playing a madal, it can become a chorus of madals and then in my playing I’m reacting to that delays and the reverbs and how it moves and you can see it bouncing of all sides and it appears to you in many different shapes and sizes. So that’s fun and it allows us to compose on the stage as we play.
It’s certainly an extension of the types of things you used to do with the Dead and with the RAMU setup in your post-Dead world.
M: Definitely. This setup we’ve got now, though, works the best of all. All those years were experimentation that’s led up to this. If we didn’t have all those small successes and failures through the years, we wouldn’t be where we are.
Z: They’re all stepping stones.
M: My God, remember Bob Bralove back there on a 60-channel board and turning knobs [during GD drum solos]? We’ve been through every imaginable permutation. But that was in the analog world. Now we have these very power sound droids—’bots!
So, Zakir, is this now something you do, too? Working with your own electronics setup?
Z: I have been corrupted by Mr. Hart; it’s true.
M: Absolutely! And he’s very good at it.
How about Giovanni and Sikiru?
M: No, they’re just playing. They’re focusing on their performance. But we also have an operator, Jonah Sharp, who helps us a lot in getting all this together.
Z: It’s not all electronic. We’re also going into the organic world. You will see Mickey and me sitting in the front playing the balafon on a regular microphone. Or shakers…
M: Or tar. Or drums. So that which began the journey is still with us.
Let me ask you about a couple of pieces on the CD. What going on in “Dances With Wood”?
M: It actually comes from tree stumps. We actually performed on the stumps and then put it through the same sonic experience so it became a whole orchestra unto itself. One of those stumps is something like 250 pounds. We have an old-growth grape chardonnay vine that was in the ground during the Civil War, and it’s extraordinarily resonant. And so was the redwood stump we used.
I really like the altered sitar on “Under the Groove” and “Kululi Groove.” At first I thought it was an electric guitar, but then on “Kaluli Groove” you can hear the unmistakable sitar twang coming out of the sustained notes.
Z: Isn’t that wonderful? That’s Niladari Kumar, who’s a young man I work with when I travel and perform. In fact he’ll be with me next year when I play the Palace of Fine Arts [in SF.]. We tried a few different things with him, but a lot of what’s on there is just processing. Now, when we go out on tour, I’m going to play that—but not on a sitar. I’ll have a trigger device that will make that happen. It can be a box with pads on it or an instrument with triggers. These are things we’re working with, experimenting on, learning from, to see where it goes. The original idea of doing this has been achieved somewhat, but it’s still a learning process.
M: That’s right. We can say that we’ve achieved some of the vision, but not all of it. It will develop as we play it live, too, and that will be a challenge. Because it’s one thing to do this in the studio when you’re inspired; it’s another to be able to take it out on the road and play with it every night and see how it develops and where it leads. But then the next one will be beyond this, absolutely.
Z: Sometimes I leave here with a CD and I play it the next day and it sounds completely different to me and I come back and say to Mickey [he whispers], “I was up early and I did some things to it…what do you think?”
M: And it kind of builds that way. On this project we were in no particular hurry, because we didn’t have any touring plans originally. So we worked at the pace that felt right. It was getting together and exploring at a fairly leisurely pace, and then at a certain point it became clear: “Hey, we could have some fun playing this,” and then we started to view it a little differently. We went out played a few dates on the West Coast and that was successful. We came back and developed the music more and finished the CD, and now we have real soundscapes to play into.
You guys are always so busy. When you get together after not having together played in while, do you share with each other what you’ve learned in the interim?
Z: That goes on even when we’re not together: “Did you hear this? Did you read this? Did you watch that?” Sometimes I’ll get a crazy mail from RAMU. [Laughs]
M: A RAMU-o-gram!
This just in: “BWOONNNNNNG!”
Z: [Laughs] Exactly! There’s always that connection. It’s 30-some-odd years now. I never feel like when I come back I have to restart again. It’s just starts again from where we left off.
Is it hard for you when you go to India and play many concerts in a traditional style to then come back to this?
Z: No, because it’s been going on simultaneously with me for almost my entire life. Even when I was in India as a teenager, I was playing in Bollywood recording studios, and that put 60 or 70 musicians of all varieties in a room playing together—you’d have piano and sitar and sarangi and cello and bassists and guitarists. I grew up doing that, and at the same time my dad [legendary tabla master Alla Rahka] brought me Grateful Dead records and Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver and Ellington. So I was listening to all that.
M: Our first collaboration was on my first record, Rolling Thunder . Then, of course, the seminal album was Diga —that launched a thousand ships and really started this journey in way.
I hear there are plans to rerelease that. How does that sound to you today?
M: Actually, I haven’t listened to it in a long time, but I’ve always loved it.
Z: It was recording experiment, with baffles being built, rooms being built within Mickey's studio [the barn in Novato, Calif.] for us to crawl into. We literally had crawl in and sit down so the tabla players could be blocked off.
M: There were translucent Plexiglas baffles, so we had some isolation but still could see each other. Most of the people in the group were Zakir’s students.
What a great band: Jim Loveless, Ray Speigel, Tor Dietrichson...
M: …Vince Delgado. They were all great players. They’d never been in the studio and they had to learn how to play with headphones [on]. The compositions were very complex, some of them based on traditional classical pieces, at 10¼, 205 beats [as in the song "Tal Mala"]. We did nines…
Z: The 205 wasn’t my fault; that was you! [Laughs]
M: That’s right! I fingerpicked something on a guitar and then Zak put it into a rhythm…
Z: And it turned out to be 102½ beats, one cycle, but the half-beat was difficult so we did two cycles and made it 205 beats.
M: It was 10¼, ten times. You don’t do that in America. In fact Zakir told me they don’t do it in India either! [Laughs] I thought maybe people were playing in 10¼ on the street corners. But Alla Rakha composed it with us, so it was worthy thing.
Z: Diga was a recording nightmare for an engineer, too, to get any kind of separation. Plus Mickey was having tubes built that would go out of the studio out into the field, with microphones on one end of them, trying to get some sound.
He must be stopped!
M: We were getting real delay. I had two tubes in the barn that were 30 feet, and two out in the forest, and we had a Lionel railroad track and we had a locomotive at one end with a little RE-15 [microphone] and we had a speaker on the other end, and we had a little transformer. And the locomotive, as it went closer to the speaker, for each foot you got one millisecond of delay. But we lost that because of some raccoons. [Laughs]
The important thing to know about that recording is you had the quietest percussion instruments of the world trying to communicate with the loudest—like a trap [drum] set. I was in my own isolation booth. Then you had various duggies, and these folk drum instruments that were sort of in the middle, and you had congas and marimbas and a vibraphone and everything in between.
I would guess that there’s hours of stuff that no one’s ever heard from those sessions.
M: Sure. There’s a whole bunch of stuff. There was a day when Jerry came over and jammed with us.
You mean for “Razooli” and “Happiness Is Drumming”?
Z: No that was different. This is just a great jam. We call it the "Diga Jam."
Put it out, man!
M: Yeah, in all my spare time. One day it will see the light of day…
Look, they’re always searching for bonus material for these re-releases—there’s you’re ticket right there. The fans would go nuts…
M: That’s a good idea. I never thought of that..
Z: I remember he was playing that white guitar.
The Travis Bean.
M: Right, he’d just gotten it. It sounded great.
Z: It think that was around the time we did a three- or four-day jam session.
M: One time we went for four days and nights with the groove going. That was an experience. People would sleep here and there, but we always kept the groove going. When you went to the bathroom, you had to keep the groove going on the tambourine or something, or clapping. It was outrageous.
Seems like a lot of your favorite instruments are still working for you—the tar, the balafon.
M: They’re like the pet instruments.
Z: They make some of the most beautiful organic tones in the world. You have to go to the source to be able to have that inspiration to be able to take it another step. The balafon is such a beautiful instrument.
M: And now they’re like Rolls Royces. The are some amazing ones being built. The tar was the soft side for me.
Z: What did you call it? “The romancing of the ear.”
M: I also could take it everywhere. In those days you wouldn’t get arrested for playing a tar in an airport; I’m not so sure now. Also, you could clean your pot in it. [Laughs] There was a period there—it might’ve been about five years—that I had it with me every day. I’d take it on the road. My mom made me a tar case. It became my constant companion. So when you have a relationship with a drum like that, it never leaves you.
And then there was Hamza [El Din], who introduced me to that tradition: The desert. I had never been to the desert, but this drum would take me there. It became a very powerful sound symbol for me.
Zakir, you’re obviously most closely associated with the tabla, but on Mickey’s sessions through the years you’ve played a wide variety of percussion instruments. What are some of the other instruments you feel like you’ve really gotten inside of?
Z: The madal is a set of tuned Indian folk instruments that I’ve gotten into and inside of. I’ve been playing some Indian folk drums from the western coast like the dolac and the nal. These are things I was not playing before.
The madal has a sort of bell-like tone, doesn’t it?
Z: Yes, it’s bell-like and very resonant; a very melodic instrument. It’s been one of our source sounds for this album. So those things…and playing the tar with maestro here. I’ve also been getting into playing with sticks…
What’s that like for you?
Z: It’s great. It’s fun to do, but it’s also strange, because I’m thinking about fingers…
You have ten sticks!
Z: Right! And when you play with sticks your missing a bunch of them.
M: It’s a totally different sensibility, because the way he uses his fingers is very sophisticated—the way he gets all these different tones, a different feeling when he’s leaning back or laying into the beat…
Z: I have to be very thankful because the association with Mickey and this journey has really revealed a whole different world of information and tradition and different genres and styles of drumming to me, which has actually helped me a lot in every aspect of my drumming. I have to say that be it Latin percussion, Nubian, jazz, rock, whatever—a big concoction of that has seeped into my tabla playing. My tabla playing has gotten richer because of this union.
I don’t think Mickey gets enough credit for really revealing this world of rhythm to the world.
What’s the technical term for when your "speaking" beats—"taka-taka-ta-ta-ta.."?
Z: They are known as boles or paran.
Is that you singing on “Heartspace”?
Z: Yes it is. That’s another thing he’s twisted my arm to do.
I think you sound good on that.
Z: But I don’t sing.
M: We call him “Achmed.” Zakir doesn’t sing, but Achmed can sing! “Achmed, go out there and sing!” [Laughs]
Z: Which reminds me, I have to go back down and work on “Heartspace” right now, getting it ready for the road. See you later! [He departs.]
Mickey, let me ask you one question about Tom Flye, who’s recorded most of your albums and mixed this CD. If so much of the music was being done live during the tracking sessions, does that mean he didn’t have as much as usual to do at the mix stage?
No, he was still very involved! He’s got the ear and he has the sensibility. He’s my reference point. My ears are not what they once were. I can hear detail and my recordings still sound fine, but a lot of it has to do with Tom. I’ll say, “Tom, am I pushing too much at 8000?" Or, “Am I laying on this too hard?” And he gives me the absolute truth. He’ll say, “Oh, Mickey, that gated reverb there is too severe.” I like that about Tom. He also has the kind of telepathy where he won’t even have to say anything—he’ll just look at me and he’ll want to see if I blink. So he’ll suggest something and we’ll change it a little. He’s such a wonderful guy, and he has no ego. He’s only interested in excellence.
Would the songs arrive to him already edited, in terms of the lengths of pieces?
No, he would come by and check every now and then. I have him come in and make sure I haven’t gone off the deep end, if all the processing is in phase; something I might’ve missed. It’s like he makes house calls. [Laughs] So he’s familiar with the material before he starts mixing, but then he also comes in with a fresh ear and he finishes it off.
How did you know when the CD was done?
You know when it’s done. Actually Zakir plays a big important part in that because I can go on forever. And he’ll say, “Enough!”
I was going to ask you what the nature of your co-production with Zakir is.
He just knows so much about music. He’s got a degree in music. He understands when something is out of tune more than I would. He’s got perfect pitch. He has an extraordinary memory, as you might imagine, being able to remember and recite all those boles. It’s, it’s…disgusting! [Laughs] He’s about as good as it gets in a human being when it comes to perfect recall. He never forgets anything.
He is the sane one. I am the man of chaos, he is the man or order. And we love each other’s eccentricities. He can veer to the world of being too perfect, and I can go to the world of chaos. We meet somewhere in the middle and it comes out great. It’s just like in the Grateful Dead: You can’t explain the alchemy of it, the chemistry of it. I’m just fortunate that I can play with Zakir…and Giovanni and Sikiru. Any day playing with them I feel is paradise on earth.
What do Sikiru and Giovanni bring to it?
They’re the spine. They’re brothers. They can play with anybody. Giovanni is Zakir’s counterpart in the Latin world. They’re deities. They’re special. They live in a place that no one else lives. They have the incredible skill, but they also have the knowledge of western music and all these different traditions. I am so lucky to have encountered all these guys, and so many others, too—Baba, Airto…it’s a long list. I know how fortunate I’ve been.