Mickey Hart Taps Into Kodo's 'Mondo Head'

"It's over the top, it really is," Mickey Hart says of "Mondo Head," the Red Ink album he produced with Japanese taiko drum group Kodo. "It has a great spirit. It points in a new direction. I t

"It's over the top, it really is," Mickey Hart says of "Mondo Head," the Red Ink album he produced with Japanese taiko drum group Kodo. "It has a great spirit. It points in a new direction. I think it's a new world music."

And world music is something the former Grateful Dead percussionist knows a bit about. As a performer and musicologist outside of his career with the Dead, Hart has consistently sought out musicians, particularly drummers, from around the globe for knowledge, inspiration, and collaboration.

Hart first met Kodo's principal members in 1976, when lead drummer Yoshikazu Fujimoto was in the group Ondeko Za. "It was the first time taiko had been to the United States," Hart remembers. "They played at a Kabuki theater here in San Francisco, and they were advertised as 'the demon drummers.' I couldn't pass that up. I wanted to see other demon drummers!"

Literally translated, "taiko" is Japanese for "drum," and purveyors of the modern tradition hold to a rigid discipline for the highly physical and emotional performance of the art form.

The relationship that began that day in '76 led to Fujimoto performing with the Grateful Dead, and with the Rhythm Devils, a group led by Hart and fellow Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann that created the primal sounds for Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Along with occasional collaboration, Hart also narrated the U.S. release of Kodo's 1993 Sony home video release, "Live at Acropolis."

When Kodo approached Hart to consider working on a project together, "I went to the mountain, and thought about what it was, what a great opportunity it could be," Hart says. "I didn't want to record just another taiko record. I figured they had already recorded dozens of them, and they really didn't need me for another one, so I wanted to take them out there."

In order to do that, Hart enlisted an international cast of musicians and vocalists for the 11-track "Mondo Head," released worldwide last year via Sony Japan, and today (April 23) in North America. Guest percussionists on the set include Airto Moreira (Brazil), Giovanni Hidalgo (Puerto Rico), Nengue Hernandez (Cuba), and Arto Tuncboyaciyan (Turkey), as well as Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. Among those adding vocals to Kodo's music for the first time are Bobi Cespedes (Cuba), Azam Ali (Iran), and Tibet's Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir.

The handful of Americans that round out the project are blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, drummer Michael Hinton, and vocalists Joey Blake, Greg Ellis, and the Cultural Heritage Choir's Linda Tillery and Rhonda Benin.

"I see this as the morphing of the taiko tradition -- which is not an ancient tradition, it's a '50s thing -- into yet other directions," Hart explains. "They'll be still doing their standard beautiful taiko tradition, but this is another way they can express themselves using those drums."

"It's sort of a metaphor for what we have to do in the world," Hart says. "We have to unite, we've got to learn each other's music, and each other's cultures to be able to understand, and to be able to come to grips with this planet we're living on... This is a way for Kodo to draw musical inspiration and to have a dialogue with other cultures."

Along with the Kodo project, Hart has also been preparing a new album from Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir, "Perfect Jewel: Sacred Chants of Tibet," which Rykodisc will release May 14. "The monks are a must hear," he says. "The thing about this recording is they allowed me for the first time to overdub. So it's got three choirs on it -- it's monks on monks on monks."

"That's really wild," Hart enthuses. "I'd never even tried to overdub the choir, let alone three times. So, it sounds like hundreds because they're chanting in unison over themselves. They're so good at it, they know the sandskrit text so well that they're a total carbon copy of themselves. They can do it over and over and over exactly the same way. So here they are, sitting with earphones, doing it, you know, multi-tracking. It's really amazing."

"This recording is perhaps my finest recording," Hart says of "Perfect Jewel." The set was recorded in 1995, and is being released now to coincide with the Monks' North American tour, which consists of performances, workshops, and construction and destruction of sand mandalas and butter sculptures. (For more information, visit the Gyuto Monks' official Web site.)

The group tours North America "every five to seven years," according to Hart. "A 2,500 year-old tradition, totally untouched. You get a glimpse of the rarest sacred ritual on the planet. This is really something."

Kodo and the Gyuto Monks aren't the only pies in which the seemingly always-busy Hart has his hand these days. Sometime this year, Hart, who is a trustee of the U.S. Library of Congress, is expected to testify to the powers of rhythm-based therapy in front of a Congressional subcommittee on aging.

It's really quite amazing what's going on in the world of neurological function, and basically how the brain works when exposed to rhythm," says Hart, who works with renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks at New York's Beth Abraham Hospital. "It helps [people stricken with Alzheimer's and dementia] reconnect. Their motor responses start coming back -- their memory, speech -- once they are involved in a coordinated rhythmic activity that has to do with low end, drumming. There seems to be 40 cycles missing universally in the motor-impaired. So when you put back that low end, they start reconnecting and coming out of the darkness. It's amazing."

Hart is also working with National Geographic to develop music projects that will involve books, Internet, and television. "It's all about music and different cultures around the world," he says of the still embryonic relationship. This year will also see him perform with Kodo, which will spend May and June on the road in Japan and July and August in the U.S., when Hart hopes to convene a "Mondo Head" performance at Colorado's famed Red Rocks outdoor amphitheater. Touring with his band Bembe Orisha is also in the cards.

In addition, today will also see the Rykodisc release of "The Best of Mickey Hart: Over the Edge and Back," a nine-track album that surveys 20 years of the artist's global percussion quest. Along with tracks from his 1991 Grammy award-winning album "Planet Drum," 1996's "Mystery Box," and "Apocalypse Now," the set includes the first release of "Call to All Nations," composed and recorded especially for the 1996 opening ceremonies of the 100th Olympiad in Atlanta.

But for all of the music he's involved with, Hart reserves his most intense passion for technology, specifically 5.1 Surround Sound, which he claims is one of the only reasons he worked on the Ryko compilation. "I'm not really a big 'best of' fan," he says. "The thing that interests was doing it in 5.1, because I wasn't just making a 'best of,' I was putting it in the new medium of 5.1... I don't do a project now that doesn't have a 5.1 component."

"The ear is in surround," Hart explains." It's not a stereo instrument. So, it puts you right in the middle of the music. It's the medium of the future. It's exciting to be in the sound field, being part of that soundscape. It makes me want to go into the studio everyday. Man, I'm tired of stereo. Stereo is a thing of the past, it just doesn't know it yet. Stereo's dead."

And true to his word, Hart has utilized the technology in all of his current projects, including Kodo's "Mondo Head" and the Gyuto Monks' "Perfect Jewel."

"You're right in the middle of the band," he says. "I mixed where Kodo would be around you, or the Monks... you're sitting in the field of Gyuto Monks, the monks are surrounding you. It's just irresistible. I mean, your ear falls in love for the first time again. It's like sex! Oh yeah, it's sensual, man."

Hart has extended the medium to affect past projects as well, remixing the DVD-Audio reissues of the Grateful Dead albums "American Beauty" and "Workingman's Dead," both originally issued in 1970. "I love it! It's a new playground, a new sandbox. There's a whole new ether. A whole new breath of air you can take while you are just drifting into these mixes. I mean, they're sublime."

And then there's the enduring popularity of the Dead. Although the group effectively ended its long strange trip following the 1995 death of guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia, it lives on through a continuing series of live albums in the "Dick's Picks" series of archive releases, which is now on its 24th volume.

"It's fascinating, " Hart says of the Dead phenomenon. "I think people are hearing something in the music that resonates in them. That's the only reason it seems to be enduring. It was real music in real time, and it wasn't pre-programmed, packaged up, and it's standing the test of time."

Hart says he has little input into the continuous stream of live Grateful Dead releases, which are available, as is information on virtually every offshoot of the band, on its official Web site, dead.net.

"I have no idea what's good anymore with the Grateful Dead because I'm too close. But we have great archivists and people in the vault who really study this and really know. And the fans... they just appreciate it at a high level and they are really connoisseurs. They databased our whole world. All you have to do is just listen to the Deadheads. I mean, they've done all the work. They've saved us thousands of hours just because of their zeal. They're great! Whenever I want to know something, I just go to [the independently maintained online Grateful Dead archive] DeadBase."

While some of the Grateful Dead's many members have worked together in various incarnations in the six or so years since Garcia's death, a full on band project has not surfaced... yet.

"There are plans afoot," Hart divulges. "I cannot reveal [specific details] at the present time. But I think something's happening. I think there has been a shift of attitudes. I think that everybody's ready to put their differences in the past, and something might happen."

Pressed for details to satiate the rabid Deadhead sect, Hart remains coy, saying only, "Nope. I cannot reveal any more."