Spreads Himself Thin at Finney
age 13 to 15, my only real aspiration was to follow the Grateful
Dead around for the rest of my life. I grew out of that phase many
years ago, but I was still thrilled to hear that ex-Grateful Dead
drummer, Mickey Hart, would be rocking out in Finney Chapel this
past Sunday. There, playing with his latest nine-piece ensemble,
Bembe Orisha or “Party of the Saints,” Hart introduced
his self-described “not Eastern” but “not Western”
world music to Oberlin.
Or at least that’s what he calls it. Truly, the idea is admirable,
but Hart missed the beat entirely as the Bembe Orisha world sound
proved to be an over-wrought disaster. The stage was filled with
numerous glowing instruments hailing from Africa, Cuba, Iran, India
and the Americas, indicating the band’s attempt to fuse traditional
and modern sounds. Rather than defy time and genre, the outrageous
number of instruments simply over-shadowed one another musically
and left the audience wanting something more defined.
“I thought that the individual musicians — especially
the conga /timbale player, the talking drummer, and the dumbek player
– were all phenomenal,” Senior Patia Maule said. “But
the overall combination of a lot of heavily miked percussion, plus
bass and guitar was overwhelming and didn’t allow each instrument
the attention that it deserved.”
A particularly good example of this difficulty was in the ensemble’s
third song. One of the two lead female vocalists, Azam Ali, began
the piece by playing a dulcimer. It sounded beautiful, echoing elegantly
through Finney, but once the rest of the 29 hand drums, 17 bells
and many other percussive instruments joined, the piece fell apart
entirely; it sounded misled and cacophonic. The product was neither
danceable nor spiritual.
The next song was even more of a disaster. During his career with
the Grateful Dead, Hart rarely sang, devoting most of his onstage
energy to the traditional mid-concert Jam session with fellow “rhythm
devil,” Bill Kreutzmann. However, now that his career is in
his own hands, Hart displayed his terrible singing voice in this
rock-influenced piece. The lyrics had something to do with no one
understanding him, and his not being able to fit in…very appropriate
for such misplaced music.
I was surprised by how disappointing the entire show was. Not only
did Hart and the band’s performance lack the energy I so enjoyed
at the Grateful Dead shows of my youth, but I can’t help but
wonder how such a well-trained group of musicians, Hart in particular,
could be led so musically astray. Hart’s career did not start
and end with the Grateful Dead. Although lead-singer Jerry Garcia’s
death allowed all other members of the Dead to thoroughly cultivate
their own careers, Hart was constantly working on other projects
during his time with the band. Hart’s solo albums such as
Planet Drum, and work with other musicians, including drumming guru
Babtunde Olatunji and the Tibetan Gyuto Monks, was reflected in
the Dead’s ever-evolving sound, allowing Hart and the band
to constantly push the limits of their music.
Furthermore, Hart has recently become a musician-activist, presenting
to the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging on the healing powers of rhythm
as well as serving on the board of the Institute for Music and Neurological
Function. Hart also spends much of his time working with Smithsonian
Folkways to preserve indigenous and endangered music.
That said, perhaps Hart is merely experiencing a case of over stimulation.
Too many years of musical exploration may simply be giving him too
much to work with and too little left to explore.