In 1976 if you wanted to hear music from a country other than somewhere in North America or the British Isles, you had to hope that your local record store had a Folk Music section. This wasn’t to be confused with the popular notion of folk music as performed by Bob Dylan or even The Weavers. Rather it was music from different “folk” from around the world. Normally what you would find in these sections were albums whose covers always had pictures of happy smiling “natives” in traditional costume doing something that looked very traditional
I remember the section that they used to have at Sam The Record Man’s central location in Toronto Canada fitting that description. The store itself was a marvel, three stories high filled to bursting with records of every genre and description and the walls covered with autographed pictures of everyone from Alice Cooper to Luciano Pavarati.
The folk music section for this store was up on the second floor, across the hall from the Jazz/Blues and Singer/ Songwriter sections (which is where you’d find the popular folk singers). I actually used to spend quite a bit of time up there, looking at the covers of the people from all over the world. You could find everything from the massed pipes of the 48th Highlanders, to traditional music of South Africa lurking in those bins.
You have to remember the only exposure that most of us had had to music beyond the borders of Europe was the sitar music that George Harrison had incorporated into various Beatles songs or his own solo projects. The really adventurous had perhaps purchased the occasional album of Ravi Shankar’s after his appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival introduced him to the pop music crowd.
Aside from that there wasn’t anything like what we’ve come to take for granted today, where musicians from a variety of cultures band together to explore sound and rhythm.
It wasn’t until 1975 when Mickey Hart joined Zakir Hussain’s Tal Vadya Rhythm Band, that musicians from a variety of national backgrounds joined forces to combine influences and see what they came up with for the specific purpose of creating a recording. The band was renamed, Diga Rhythm Band after Mickey joined. In 1976 they recorded their first album — five songs using a variety of percussion instruments ranging from tablas of India, dumbeks of the Middle East, talking drums of Africa, vibraphones, and a full trap set from the West.
What with Mickey Hart and the late Jerry Garcia contributing guitar on two tracks, you could be forgiven thinking that the recording would end up being dominated by Western sounds. It only takes a listening to the first track to dispel that notion, as it’s soon obvious that both Hart and Garcia have allowed themselves to be swept up by the music and aren’t exerting any undue influence on the proceedings. The self titled album that was the result of this first collaboration, Diga Rhythm Band was the first in a series of five recordings that Mickey Hart made with various percussionists from around the world.
On Diga Rhythm Band we hear the most amazing combinations of rhythms. On each song, the various instruments’ sounds are layered to create textures of music that go beyond what you would normally expect to hear from what are primarily percussion instruments. Take for example the fifth song on the disc, “Tal Mala” which translates as “Garland Of Rhythms.” If you think about what a garland of flowers is like, a circle of flowers that, depending on the length, can either be worn like a crown or draped over ones shoulders like a necklace, that has neither a beginning or an end. Now imagine a series of rhythms laid out along those lines.
Now multiply that into garlands of various lengths for different instruments, and imagine them interwoven around one central point so that they are being played in relationship to each other and individually. It’s like a complicated dance where each dancer has their own specific steps they have to follow that also interact with the steps being performed by the other dancers. If you were to imagine that each dance, or rhythmic pattern, were like the rings in a circle, with those in the center being the smallest and having to repeat most often, than you’ll have a good idea of what happens with the music on this piece.
If I can stretch the analogy a little further, picture the dancers all wearing different colours, and moving in their patterns within and around each other. Now think of those colours in terms of sound, and you’ll start to get an idea of how the sound on this piece works to create the effect it does.
While “Tal Mala” is probably the most ambitious of the five creations on Diga Rhythm Band, each of the other pieces has their own distinctive flavour. On “Happiness Is Drumming” for instance, Jerry Garcia’s unique guitar sound is incorporated into a rhythmic pattern that both compliments and accentuates his playing. The song is by far the most Western sounding of any of the tracks. Gradually, the percussion seems to work its influence on the guitar here, until it begins to sound more like another percussion instrument than anything else.
Listening to this disc, thrity-two years after it was recorded, what is most amazing is how it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. There is nothing on this recording to suggest it couldn’t just as easily have been made last year as in 1976. Long before the term “World Music” entered into our lexicon of terms for music, Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain, and the others involved in The Diga Rhythm Band had already discovered there was a great big world of music out there just waiting to be listened to by those willing to open their ears wide enough.