Drummer pursues history of percussion


If a daughter or sister was about to go on a date with a guy in a rock band, the stock advice always was: "Don't bring home the drummer."

Drummers were bad news. Primitives. Savages. They beat on things for a living.

It's a bad joke that Mickey Hart, one of two drummers in the Grateful Dead, has been living down for decades.

In typical fashion, Hart laughed at the stereotype in a recent conversation from San Francisco.

"Slobbering animals -- yeah, I know the look," he says.

But there's a spiritual side to the beast, as Hart discovered during a years-long, worldwide search into the roots of his craft.

The results were recently published as "Drumming at the Edge of Magic" (Harper San Francisco, $19.95), and further illuminated by a compact disc, "At the Edge" (Rykodisc), in which Hart taps the rhythmic potential of everything from rainwater to the most high-tech equipment with the help of master percussionists such as Zakir Hussain of India and Babatunde Olatunji of Nigeria.

"For me, the discovery of the percussive possibilities of skin ranks right up there with the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel," Hart writes.

Hippie hyperbole such as that is likely to send shivers through non-believers: those folks who don't understand the Dead or their subculture. But Hart's book, though loaded with cosmic pronouncements, is also a bounty of information about the evolution of percussion, and it offers many moving observations and anecdotes about its impact on human behavior.

Rhythm is what all of us do with time, Hart says, and its mysteries have been tapped by cultures all over the world to achieve a deeper understanding of their humanity.

"Percussion and transition: What does percussion do to the human body; that's what I was after," Hart says. "Every culture seemed to understand this. We were all talking in different languages about the same things: entertainment, rapture, trance."

These states of mind are community affairs in many non-Western cultures. The idea of rhythm-sharing, of fitting one's own personal rhythms seamlessly into the flow of the whole, is the underpinning of most African percussion rituals, Hart writes.

Percussion and rhythm play a smaller role in Western culture, perhaps because the music we revere most is built on the European precepts of melody and harmony.

So Americans have traditionally regarded the percussion-based music of Africa as primitive, as somehow less worthy than European classical music.

This attitude can be traced to the day nearly 2,000 years ago when the Romans, newly converted to Christianity, banned percussive music as "mischievous and licentious," Hart writes.

Similar words were used to describe another rhythm-based music when it emerged in the '50s: rock 'n' roll.

In the '60s, funk brought rock even closer to its African root, and rap finished the job, stripping away all melody in favor of rhythm. No wonder the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which bestows the Grammys, didn't recognize rap -- a 15-year-old art form -- as a musical category until two years ago. Many of the academy's members simply didn't consider it to be musical.

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