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Music Preview: Mickey Hart and Bembe Orisha

Grateful Dead drummer Hart brings worlds together in Bembe Orisha

Friday, September 20, 2002

By Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette Weekend Editor

Mention the recently released "The Best of Mickey Hart" and the drummer is quick to distance himself from the project. It was the record company, not he, who came up with the idea to release a retrospective that he thought had little chance of holding together.

Mickey Hart: "I truly believe that music can save the world. If the Palestinians and Israelis were playing music together, they wouldn't be fighting..." (Eric Risberg, Associated Press)

"Usually there's a theme when you make a record," Hart says. "Mine is all over the map. I use crushed glass and monks and rainstorms and pop music all on the same CD. It's a difficult one."

The longtime member of the Grateful Dead clearly dances to the beat of his own drums. And he does so with a curiosity that has led him all over the world. A Mickey Hart collection encompasses his work with the Rhythm Devils on the eerie "Apocalypse Now Sessions," the gathering of the world's greatest percussionists as Planet Drum and the more multicultural pop-soul fusion of Mickey Hart's Mystery Box.

Already, Hart is beating a new path, trotting out an eight-piece world music ensemble he calls Bembe Orisha.

"It's a powerful one," Hart says. "Bembe is a party and Orisha is spirits, the saints of West Africa. That's where we got our music from."

 
    Music Preview

MICKEY HART AND BEMBE ORISHA

WHERE: Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, Oakland.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

TICKETS: $35-$65. 412-394-3353.

 
 

The group finds Hart on trap drums, balaphon, kalimba and his trusty electronic companion RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe). He's joined by the Cuban-born Nengue Hernandez on percussion and vocals; Nigerian drummer Sikiru Adepoju; Glenys Rogers of Planet Drum on vocals and talking drum; percussionist Greg Ellis and Iranian singer Azam Ali from the group Vas; former Sly and the Family Stone and Santana bassist Bobby Vega; and guitarist Barney Doyle.

Together, they can take any global leap they dare, while also "Bembe-izing" a handful of good old Grateful Dead songs.

"Planet Drum was a concert band," Hart says. "I always wanted a dance band, a rockin' band. It's still percussion-heavy. But it's got melody, guitar, bass. It's all the trappings of pop music, but it's playing a new fusion, a new gumbo."

It takes a strong musical personality and perhaps even an ethnomusicologist, as Hart is, to get musicians from so many backgrounds to blend. It also requires an open mind on the part of the players.

"It's not just skill and artistry, it's the chemistry and it's the willingness to cross borders and meet somewhere out there on new turf. ... It's not for everybody," Hart says. "You have to want to make a new music out of what you got. Some people don't like conversation, or can't converse in another language. Music isn't universal, it's not a universal language. That's a misnomer. Some music won't interact."

It didn't take much guidance from Hart to get Ellis on the same page. The Bay Area percussionist is the kind of guy who went to Grateful Dead shows looking forward to "Drums." In 1991, his life was changed when he read Hart's first book, "Drumming at the Edge of Magic."

"What it did," Ellis says, "is it got me into world music and world percussion and I realized the responsibility and the gift as a drummer to tap into a collective rhythmic consciousness of the world. Prior to that, I had never touched a hand drum or been into multicultural music. So what it did is completely shifted my whole musical vision."

In 1995, Ellis met Ali and formed Vas, an "alternative world" music group that blends American jazz with Middle Eastern and African rhythms. When Hart heard Vas, he invited Ellis and Ali to be part of Bembe Orisha, a dream come true for Ellis.

"He demands that everyone be as focused as he is and he's one of the most focused people I've ever met" Ellis says of Hart. "He's demanding in that he knows there's a place to reach, he knows there's a destination when we play music and he will not let it go until he feels we've reached that destination."

One of Hart's objectives is to move people with the music, just as the Grateful Dead did. Beyond that, he sees nothing short of spiritual and cultural awareness as one his destinations.

"The best way to learn a culture is through the music," Hart says, "and if we can do it, they, the world leaders, can do it. I truly believe that music can save the world. If the Palestinians and Israelis were playing music together, they wouldn't be fighting, they would have worked out their differences. That's not psychobabble. I truly believe that and that thought is held by many people."


Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.

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