Mickey Hart is best known for his work as percussionist with the Grateful Dead. Far fewer people know about his work outside the group as a respected ethnomusicologist and anthologist of exotic music.
Grateful Dead bandmate Jerry Garcia once called him "a mad Magyar dashing across the steppes." Mickey Hart is an intense, restless musician, never satisfied with being just another rock 'n' roll drummer. He says curiosity led him to explore the musical world outside.
"We were just about technique and copying European white guys and that's not what's in my soul and the soul of a lot of musicians," he said. "So I got a real thirst, a calling some people call it my jihad - to find the grail, Mickey's on the quest for the grail. That consumed me for many years."
Mickey Hart spent over 30 years traveling, researching and reading scholarly works on the history and origin of drums. His developing interest in the world's music led him to co-found the Endangered Music Project in the early 90s. It's dedicated to preserving music traditions that are fast disappearing.
"We were always supporting rain forests and I was looking for a way of somehow highlighting the plight of the vanishing rain forests," he said. "I thought that the rain forests were more than trees and critters -they were also people and music. That's when I got the idea of going into the rain forests musics and calling it 'endangered music,' you know, tailgating the endangerment of trees and stuff."
The Endangered Music Project is working to preserve not just the world's musical traditions, but the sounds of that heritage. Millions of old field recordings from across the globe are housed in Washington D.C., at The Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. Much of the collection is stored on fragile material. Mickey Hart took on the task of restoring and digitally preserving many of those recordings.
"The materials on which it's recorded are deteriorating - whether it be wax, tin, glass, acetate, magnetic tape, wire, yak butter," he said. "And also the music itself not being practiced, because they haven't been heard - they've been ripped away by colonization and imperialist forces. So here was this treasure trove of music that wasn't getting out. And I just happened to trip literally over a box of pre-war music from Indonesia. And that's kind of where it started."
Mickey Hart's interest in the world's music has also led to field recording and producing. He has taken music from Egypt, India, Indonesia, and West Africa and put these recordings out on his own label, 360 Degrees Productions. He was among the first to introduce American audiences to Tibetan chanting.
"A friend of mine called it 'the gorilla cage.' That's how strange this music was errrrr - 70 cycles, way down the fifth and the 11th partial," he said. "I just fell in love with it. It just soothed me, it brought me down from that high - I'd just listen to it until dawn and it brought me down in a beautiful way. That's how I use it - I use it as medicine."
Mickey Hart's latest collaboration is with the Japanese Taiko-drumming group Kodo. He wore several hats on the project - composer, producer, and performer. He encouraged the Kodo drummers to improvise and played a key role in shaping the sound of their new CD Mondohead.
"Taiko is very arranged - there's no jamming. I said 'let's go completely the other way - no paper -don't even think about the sessions - just bring your drums, come and I'll bring my drums and we're going to go at it.' I made sure the tape was running, made sure everyone was smiling," he said. "I would arrange the flow of things, more like a traffic cop. And it was a fun week, it was like drum camp, you know, all day, all night, playing with these guys, which is really my kind of day. I could do it every day."
These days, though, Mickey Hart is playing Afro-Cuban music, and is on tour with his new band Bembe Orisha. Later this year, he will join surviving members of the Grateful Dead for an extended reunion tour around the United States.