Mickey Hart reflects on New Orleans key role in the development of American music.
To celebrate Mardi Gras 2020, were revisiting this article from ourApril/May 2019 issue ofRelix, honoring 50 years of Jazz Fest.
Congo Square deserves to be recognized, Mickey Hart asserts. It is sacred ground, and we need to recognizeits importance. American-based music emerged from theculture that inhabited Congo Square in the 1800s. Most peoplehave no idea what has happened there, but we should never forget.We need to take care of it.
Among his many passions, the Grateful Dead drummer hasmaintained a focus on the history and mythology of music, whichhe has explored in books such as Planet Drum: A Celebration ofPercussion and Rhythm, Drumming at the Edge of Magic, SpiritInto Sound: The Magic of Musicand Songcatchers: In Search of theWorlds Music.
As Hart looks back on his development as a musician and a musicologist, he explains that, while he was drawn to the drums from an early age, his scholarly exploration of the instrument didnt manifest itself until years later. At first, I had no idea about any of this, he says. It reached out to methe ghosts of Congo Square grabbed me around the neck and wouldnt let me go. All I was doing was dancing and listening to Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodrguez and all the great Latin bands that were coming out of New York in the 30s, 40s, 50s. These rhythms hit the city street, and they transformed into dance music, into what we know as Latin music now. Thats how music worksyou usually base your knowledge on the body of work that preceded you, and you practice it and learn it, and then you make your own music with it, eventually. Thats what happened to the Grateful Dead, and thats what happened to me.
When I started writing my books Drumming at the Edge ofMagic and Planet Drum, back in the 70s and 80s, he continues,that was when I did all the research to find out what the historywas to what I was doing. Why was I practicing 12-15 hours a day?I had no idea. I was putting myself into a trance but I didnt knowanything about all that stuff back then. It took about 12 years ofresearch to write Drumming at the Edge of Magic, tracing whywe drum, what rhythm is all about and the history of itthebrotherhood and the sisterhood. Where did it come from? Whyam I drumming until I collapse? Why do I do these things to playmusic? Why do we play in the driving rain? Whats it all about? Andthen I discovered these rhythm cultures, which are some of themost powerful cultures on the planet. So, it was just in the ether;it was in the air. I was totally into big-band music. So, you bringyour influences forward into whatever you do, and you change itand you mutate it. It all started on the docks of New Orleans in the1800s, and wound up right here today.
Youve said that there isnt a more important city to the birth of American music than New Orleans. Can you trace the origins of that sound?
When you think about the music of New Orleans, you have to start in West Africa with the slave trade. The diaspora traveled to Brazil, Central America, Haiti, Cuba and, eventually, to New Orleans. There was a Haitian revolt beginning in the 1790s, which resulted in an influx into New Orleans of the West African slave trade. [Haiti expelled the French colonial government during a revolution that lasted from 17911804.] In many cases, these slaves brought musical instruments.
Now, the interesting part of all this is that, when they got there,the instruments were taken away. They were allowed to practicein Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean but, as soon as theygot to New Orleans, the slave owners, fearing Vodun practicescelebrating the gods Ogun, Shangoall these great gods of WestAfricalimited this practice and they did what they could toCatholicize those same gods.
However, on Sunday, the slaves were allowed to practice their rituals in two placesone in Congo Square and the other in Lake Pontchartrain. Here, they were supervised because they were afraid of slaves going into a trance, and these were trance-based religions from West Africa. So, they were allowed to play on Sundays, and between 6-8 p.m. there would be a shot. Thats when they would move into a trance. They would bring in the loa, which inhabited their bodies, in what is a classic possession trance ritual. And these trance-based religions were driven by the trance drums, often using the bat, specifically, which would become congas. Pontchartrain and Congo Square became the real nexus of everything in American backbeat. All the American music like jazz, rap, rock-and-roll, bluesthat all came out of this influx of slaves into New Orleans, where all these trance-based religions were driven by the drums.
If we jump ahead to 1900, then compare the beats of New Orleans to Ghana across the ocean. To what extent were those sounds transformed by interacting with other sounds on American soil?
They mutated, although the rituals were the same. They were going after the loa, going after the trance. And thats the important thing to understand. It was for pleasure, but their pleasure was contacting the gods, and the only way to do that was through these dances. There was no dance without a rhythm, and no rhythm without a dancethey were inseparable. These public gatherings were really frowned upon. So they used to call them entertainments.
Eventually, they were able to keep their drums. After the 1800s, they were allowed to start to have their drums and practice their own rituals. For awhile there, people were selling tickets for others to watch them. There were people in buggies up on the hillsthe whites were watching the rituals from their hillside in New Orleans, watching Pontchartrain and Congo Square. All of this came to an end in 1870 or 1875 when the first Jim Crow Act forbid blacks to freely assemblethats when the dances stopped.
But, a lot of things came out of that, like the instrumentsthe bass drums, the wood blocks, the cymbals, all the African instruments. Sometimes they changed form, but they were pretty much the same instruments.
Meanwhile, the music traveled by way of the Mississippi Riverover to Kansas City and up to Chicago, and it wound up every placein America.
You also cant forget Storyville [New Orleans red light district];thats where ragtime began. You also have the brass bands emergingat this time as well.
New Orleans is Mecca; its the birth place of American music.Its where all those rivers came together and birthed what weknow as our music. And all this history goes back to those fieldson Congo Square.
In Drumming at the Edge of Magic, you also describe how all these rhythms led to a new American instrument.
Yes, the effort to power these new rhythms led to the creation of the drum set, which is incredible. Its one of the only great American instruments and it took the tom-toms from the East, the cymbals from Turkey and some of the other things I just mentioned. Wetook all these different elements from around the world, and wemade what we call a contraption, which was shortened to traps,the American drum set.
Can you talk about the clave rhythm, which also is a product of the diaspora?
The clave means key. The key to everything; the key to the rhythms. That was picked up by Latin music like Tito Puente, Machito and all those New York bands who were playing the clave that was coming out of the rhythms of West Africa. They picked up on it and realized you had to revolve around this one rhythm. All these rhythmic patterns had some version of the clave, which was a repeated pattern where everybody knew the first part of the rhythm and the second part, and it repeats over and over. The one thing that stays constant is the clave. It was derived from the West African rhythms and, of course, it was taken into the new lexicon of the New World.
Thats what you hear in Bo Diddleyhe picked up on it. Buddy Hollythats clave! The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead. We all love clave. I was teethed on clave. Thats where I came from. One of the things I brought into the Grateful Dead was a bit of the clave. Bill and I played that really well; we love clave. Not everyone loves clave because it has a rolling rhythm to it, which is not so easy for people to pick up on. But once you do, you realize it is the key to everything, rhythmically.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.
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