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Music Review: Mickey Hart Planet Drum

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Without any doubt the act of beating out a rhythm is the most universal form of music making among humans. Heck even some of our primate relatives who haven't come as far up the evolutionary chart as us make use of rhythmic patterns during dominance and courtship displays, either by beating a tattoo out on their chests or pounding the earth with sticks or their fists. Whether the chimpanzees and gorillas are deliberately creating a rhythmic accompaniment or song to go with their actions will likely never be known, but there's no doubt that they recognize how much it increases the impressiveness of their display.

Drums or some sort of percussion is and has been part of every culture's musical language. When Native North Americans gather to play the large communal drum that is now associated with Pow Wow celebrations, they refer to the sound it generates as the heartbeat of the Mother – the sound of the source of all life. Perhaps on some level or another that explains all of our fascination with the sound of the drum, as it reminds us on an unconscious level of the first thing we ever hear – the sound of our mother's heartbeat while we are still in the womb.

From such humble beginnings people around the world have developed not only a variety of means to help them express their relationship to that rhythm, but an astounding number of patterns has evolved from that one basic beat. It sometimes seems that from that heartbeat each culture has developed a pattern that expresses something that is unique to them, while maintaining sufficient elements of universality that they are able to find common ground with other peoples.
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In 1991, Mickey Hart, drummer from the Grateful Dead, fulfilled a dream by bringing together great drummers from around the world to create a record based entirely on percussion. The recording that resulted from this collaboration, Planet Drum, was so impressive that it was awarded the first ever Grammy in the World Music category. Seventeen years later, as part of its Mickey Hart collection, Shout Factory Records has re-issued Planet Drum so that a whole new generation of percussion enthusiasts can enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The recording was designed to be a companion for a book that Mr. Hart had written of the same name. The book, and the recording, was created with the intent of giving people an idea of the numerous ways that humans have devised to make rhythm, and the variety of sounds that are generated through those efforts. To that end he recruited musicians from a variety of cultures: Airto Moreira from Brazil brings the Latin beat of South America; Babatunde Olatunji and Sikiru Adepoju from Nigeria the distinctive sound of the West African drums; Zakir Hussain represented Northern India and T.H. 'Vikku' Vinayakram the sounds of Southern India.

These five, along with Mickey Hart and vocalist Flora Purim, went into the studio having no idea what they would come up with. After listening to the 13 tracks that were the result of their sessions you'd never know that none of them had ever played together before, and nobody had ever tried to bring together such a diverse mix of rhythmic backgrounds. Even more remarkable is the fact that instead of them first doing one song in one tradition, then the next in another, they drew upon a variety of inspirations to form the basis for each track.

The fourth song, "Dance Of The Hunter's Fire," is an example of building one culture on top of another, as its origins lie in Africa. While the two drummers from Africa play their interpretation of how that beat should sound, 'Vikku' from South India improvised around them in the style he would normally use for his music. The result the creation of an interesting counterpoint for the central pattern, providing accents where there might not have been ones before, yet still sounding like they belong in exactly the places they are being played.

While they follow this pattern for some of the songs, starting with the sound of one culture and adding on to it, other songs are built around a means of creating sound. "Jewe" was created using the human body as the instrument. All five musicians created sounds by slapping on their own chest with cupped hands and singing at the same time. As each voice has a different pitch, and each person was "playing" themselves at a different speed, it was an interesting study in contrasts of sound, pitch, and rhythm.

On other songs the group took for their inspiration natural sounds to create the piece of music. The track "Mysterious Island" for instance had its origins in a recording of wave sounds that Mickey Hart made on the beaches of the island of Kona in Hawaii. On the other hand "Temple Caves" didn't use the actual sounds of caves; inspiration came from the knowledge that Paleolithic trance dancers used the naturally occurring sounds of the cave; the flapping of bat wings, dripping of water, and the echoes of their own foot steps, as the backdrop for their dances.

In both instances the musicians created a new "language" in order to try and recreate the sensations of the two different experiences. Instead of merely playing the rhythms and sounds of their own cultures they drew upon the ideas expressed by the other members of the ensemble and blended them with their own. As each musician did this, each of these songs became something unique in its own right.

Planet Drum is an amazing collaboration between cultures from around the world. Not only are there songs on the disc that feature distinct rhythmic traditions working in tandem to create wonderful mixtures of sounds and rhythms, there are songs where entirely new patterns are born. This disc is an amazing example of the wonders that can be created with sound and rhythm and is a joy to listen to.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.