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Published: 2001/10/25
by Dean Budnick

Getting to the Roots of the Roots: Mickey Harts Bembe Orisha

Fully six years since the final performances of the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart’s work ethic remains unabated. Hart has occupied himself with a range of projects, fronting both bands and foundations. His current musical offering is Bembe Orisha, the current incarnation of his lifelong exploration of the world’s intersecting musical cultures. This band will tour on the east coast for a month, beginning October 28 at the Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida and concluding on November 18 in the Bronx at the Lehrman Center for the Performing Arts (for dates click here). Meanwhile, his remixed version the Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty is slated for release next month as well. To take a gander at the full scope of his ongoing activities visit the visit

DB- I’d like to begin by checking in on some of your many projects that intrigue me. For starters please talk a bit about Save Our Sounds.

MH- That’s a very interesting project, a collaboration between the Library of Congress American Folklife Center and the Smithsonian Folkways. We’re trying to raise consciousness and money to try to digitize some of the more endangered recording which start from 1890. A lot of the material on which they were recorded is decomposing at a rapid rate, so it’s kind of race against time. We’ll digitize it and put it on the National Digital Library at

There are 2 forms of endangerment, the hard and the soft meaning. First there’s the music itself that’s dying, and then there’s the medium on which it’s been recorded. So we look for the most endangered physical material. That’s the primary concern, particularly if it’s wax or tin or glass or wire or whatever, then you have to go to that first.

There’s also a board, the National Digital Registry, that will identify the most endangered collections. That’s actually separate from Save Our Sounds. This was created by Congress and I’m on the board to look into this endangerment issue. We need a registry because we need to know where things are- maybe there are copies that people haven’t uncovered yet

DB- Since you mentioned digitizing sounds, I’m curious, how are the efforts going to digitize the entire Grateful Dead live catalog?

MH- We’re nipping at it. It’s an enormous job, 2400 concerts. It’s not a mass digitization, we’re proceeding slowly.

DB- Chronologically?

MH- No by releases but we’re constantly digitizing off to the side. It’s a real time-consuming process, it’s not a cowboy, yahoo kind of thing.

DB- Let’s jump to another organization you work with, the Institute for Neurological Function.

MH- These things take up a bit more of my time than they used to. That is a fantastic organization that is investigating brainwave function, how the brain responds to musical stimuli, vibrations and how it can be used as medicine. I work with Alzheimer’s dementia and motor-impaired patients. My particular expertise is rhythm so I facilitate rhythm experiences, drum circles, for the people in chairs and try to bring them out of the darkness.

It’s amazing, it’s a bit like that Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, just a little more scientific. Now the machines are available to see what the brain looks like before, during and after a experience. We find patients connecting again to their memory, their speech patterns and their motor responses. Group rhythmic activity is common once their synapses start firing again in the midbrain and give signals to them, So serious science is starting to weigh in on the power of music and medicine. This is serious business, and once we determine what it is and how it works we’ll be able to do it on a daily basis and prescribe for it.

DB- I assume it must be very rewarding to see the results firsthand.

MH- It’s quite amazing but it’s not all heroics, there’s a lot of sadness that goes along with it. I couldn’t have done this ten years ago. There’s a lot of pain and suffering but the joy far outweighs it and now that science is validating it, this seems more real rather than seat-of-the-pants science.

DB- I would imagine it must be difficult to balance all of these efforts with your performing, recording and writing.

MH- It would seem that way wouldn’t it. I keep busy. I move, I move on. I have a lot of projects and a lot of interests and I try to fill my life up with meaningful stuff. I go to the gym and then come back and I work all day or play, whatever the case may be. Time management is important and I get up in the middle of the night a lot and write and read. I’m active, I like to stay that way, it keeps me sharp and I feel like I’m doing some good and it’s fun.

DB- I’d also like to touch briefly on your performance that took place on September 15.

MH- Well it was cathartic and emotional. I thought a lot about it and walked around here with my heart broken just like everyone else and then I realized that’s how I support this effort, through music. Music is the antidote, it’s the serum. Without music we’re dead spiritually, that’s how I see it. Music brings people together and you can grieve, you can celebrate life…

It was just a matter of whether could I get it up spiritually and mentally to go out and perform before people with these feelings that were going through me. You know I went to the mountain and the voice said, “Go play.” I thought it was the right thing to do although I know a lot of people cancelled. I wouldn’t let them take that away from us. I think music is a necessity of life and it’s here for a reason. It’s an important salve and healing agent. So I will play whether throngs come out or two people.

DB- Did you sense a different energy in the room that night?

MH- It was electric. It was a full house, full to the rafters and everybody was with us. It’s sort of the extension of the feeling that you get out there- people act with a little more compassion and kindness on every level. It was a heightened musical experience for me.

DB- One final question before we move on to Bembe Orisha, you recently remixed two Dead albums. What was that project like and how long did it take you to complete?

MH- American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are coming out in 5.1 and in new stereo mixes. It’s not re-packaging, it’s a new look. It’s musical archeology. That was a month. One intense month. It’s my perspective on it, I hope people will like it. Bob Hunter heard it and he loved it. Members of the band have heard it in passing and they’re thrilled it and I’m overjoyed with it.

DB- Were you working from original tracking?

MH- Yes. I found new guitars, new voices, extended songs that were faded prematurely, new blends of voices that weren’t used for one reason or another. I just re-approached it. There was no need for me to do it like the original, you can hear the original. So this was a revisionist look at it using modern technology, although I didn’t use the computers to alter the pitch. I used what was on the tape and my own ears. When you hear the DVD you’ll hear a new stereo mix and a new 5.1 mix. That’s in DVD 24/96 which is the new world standard. It’s crystal clear, it’s beautiful. It really gives you the chills.

DB- Okay, Bembe Orisha, what is the origin of the name?

MH- It refers to a party for the earth spirits. It’s a west African term. The music will incorporate a number of traditions: Caribbean, Haitian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, African and also elements of Persia. It’s some of my favorite music and it’s the same music that spawned the blues, jazz, rock and roll. It really is the roots of the roots. It’s sort of a continuation of my Planet Drum experiences. It’s dance music, celebratory in nature.

DB- Will you focus on compositions? Improvisation?

MH- Some of what we’ll do are adaptations of tradition West African songs and what we call the supralingua which is sounds in certain tongues that have no literal translation. It’ll have deep grooves. We have room for improvisation and we will perform compositions as well. It’s the best of both worlds.

DB- You’ll be playing percussion and RAMU. Please describe RAMU for those unfamiliar with it.

MH- RAMU is a soundroid, a computer that contains a lot of the sounds form my library so I’ll be accessing those. The combinations are limitless. You can put a gamelan together with a rainforest or anything from monks to crushed glass to piano to marimba. It offers a palette that you could never take on the road with you. Whenever I get a new instrument in my collection I digitize it so I’ll have it forever if it gets lost or beat up or loses its voice. It’s exploratory in nature and you’ll never hear the combinations. I can combine instruments from all over the globe at the touch of a finger. It’s exotic stuff. So that’s electronic in nature and then of course I have all my percussion surrounding it so I use it as a supplement to the drums themselves.

DB- Given the fact that there are so many sounds is it hard to access what you might want in mid-performance?

MH- No, I know it really well. It’s like a piano, if you know it really well you know where the keys are. I mean it took me years to find the instrument. It’s like cracking the secret formula, you have to play with it and learn its touch. It’s not just a bunch of samples, it’s a real creature.

DB- Would you introduce the members of the band? Some of these musicians you’ve played with before, right?

MH- Yes, some were in the Mickey Hart Band and Planet Drum. Others have come into my life, wanted to go on an adventure and we clicked. Then they became part of the sound.

On talking drum is Siriku Adepoju. Siriku is perhaps the greatest talking drummer in the world. He’s the Paganini of the talking drum, that’s a variable pitch instrument. Then there’s Nengue Hernandez who is master of all things Latin American and he’s a great singer. Bobi Cespedes is of Afro-Cuban descent. She’s a vocalist and plays clave. Then there’s Azam Ali who brings the Persian element into it. She was born and raised in India and plays hammered dulcimer, sings ecstatic vocal and plays percussion. Greg Ellis is a master of middle eastern percussion and he plays instruments from Africa as well. Barney Doyle is a western rock and roll guitar player but he’s wonderfully suited for this because he has the west African sensibilities. And Rahsaan Fredricks on bass. He plays a lot of afro-Cuban style and funk and it rocks.

DB- Given that there are so many players from so many traditions what sort of blueprint do you work from when you rehearse or perform?

MH- I like to open it up and give everyone a piece. Everybody has their own input into the multicultural stew and what comes out the other end is quite fascinating when you put the right people together. Not all musics mix, that would sort of be a false utopian ideal. All these people are sweet lovely people, good folks, you’d want to hang out with any of them. I encourage each of them to bring their particular juice to the group. We call it juice and that’s how it goes in rehearsal, it’s pretty loose.

DB- So in terms of the results, what can people to expect see when they check out Bembe Orisha?

MH- A lot of cultures conversing. It’s a great metaphor for what’s going on in the world right now. You have to understand each other that’s what this is all based on. All of these cultures can get together and have a marvelous time, an uplifting time and this is one way it can happen. I think now more than ever these multi-cultural congregations are very important. They take on a different light with the recent situation. I believe music can be an antidote to the hatred.

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