The Talking Of The Drum

Joshua Wolf
Freelance video journalist, Joshua Wolf, 24, gestures during a rally outside of Federal Building in San Francisco, July 20, 2006.

This report originally was broadcast in December 2000.

Probably no one knows drums better than Mickey Hart, as Correspondent John Blackstone reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

"Many people believe that these instruments connect us with the sacred dimension," says Hart.

"They summon the gods down," he says. "They play for them, they entertain them, and they send them off to do their bidding."

For 30 years Hart was one of a pair of drummers driving the Grateful Dead.

Hart has not just played drums. He's devoted 30 years to researching and writing about them and collecting drums from all over the world. He's amassed what's believed to be the world's largest private collection.

Some of Hart's drums are now on display at San Francisco International Airport.

Different drums affect different part of the body, he asserts, "because the low frequencies, they respond to the lower part of your body, your lower chakras, they call them."

Drums have captivated Hart since childhood. "My percussion world started when I was a kid," he says. "I sat on a beach and I played some rhythm, and a couple of people started to dance. And I said, 'Wow! This is very interesting,'" he recalls. "'I like this.'"

With the Grateful Dead, Hart continued to get folks dancing to his beat.

"In Grateful Dead land, I have all kinds of drums, filler drums that fill in between things. Then there are meat and potato drums, like the snare and the bass drum that give you the beat and the back beat.

"That's the function of those things to start rocking back and forth," he says.

"So (I) try to have all these colors. So when I'm out there I'm painting," he explains.

Searching for new sounds for his palette has led Hart on a quest for drums around the world. In a shop in Bali, he found a bronze drum.

His thousands of drums are stored in warehouses and containers packed in cases stacked to the ceiling.

"Each drum contains its own fingerprint, its own personal sound. And that's what makes a drum unique," he says.

"And if you listen really deeply, it's sort of like what we call a spirit voice, something that lives just under the sound that's a deeper, more powerful voice," he adds.

Respect for the drums' spirits is what kept Hart from exhibiting his collection till now.

"I didn't want people to get that close to them; I didn't want their vibes," he explains.

Throughout history, rhythm has been used to coordinate efforts in war or set the pace for work or just to relieve the drudgery of manual labor.

"These are played for the harvest and also for planting food," he says. "They make the work go easier."

"I do this at home. When we plant our garden, I take my drums out while the garden is planted and I play a rhythm. It makes a very joyful experience," he says.

"You know it's work, but it's joyful work; somebody's got to keep the rhythm," Hart says.

Hart's passion to preserve percussion instrument and music has led him on a long strange trip for a rock musician.

"I got a call from Senator Daschle and he appointed me (to) a six-year (term) to be a trustee at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. So now I oversee the largest indigenous music collection in the world," he says.

"I make tremendous discoveries in the Library of Congress archives. It's a million and a half hours of music; it's even bigger than the Grateful Dead archives," he says, laughing.

Besides working to save the music of the past, Hart is excited about finding a new role for drums in the future: rhythm as medicine.

"I just came back from a magnificent week at the Institute for Neurological Function at Beth Abraham in the Bronx," he says.

The hospital had a camera rolling when Hart led a drum circle for patients suffering with Alzeheimer's, head traumas and strokes.

"They're finding out that rhythmic stimuli brings them out and they were all playing in rhythm," he says. "They're saying their names. They were singing. They were playing in time. They were smiling and they were alive when the rhythm was going."

At this music therapy clinic, researchers are learning that sometimes a powerful beat can be more effective than a powerful drug.

"So now real science is weighing in on the power of rhythm. It's not just for entertainment anymore but medicine," Hart says.

For Hart drumming has been good medicine indeed.

"I don't remember ever coming off the stage feeling worse than when I went on," he says. "You feel 'Wow! This feels great! I wish I can make this last.' There's something magic to it."

It's that magic Hart wants people to experience as they discover that the beating of a drum can be not only musical, but mystical.

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