Grateful Dead drummer, anthropologist collaborate
By Greg Johnston
Steve Feld, anthropology and music, will introduce Hart's Ovation Series lecture this Friday at Popejoy Hall.
When Mickey Hart, percussionist for the San Francisco band the Grateful Dead, was conducting research in 1983 for his first book, “Drumming At The Edge Of Magic,” he wanted to know more about the drums of New Guinea. Friends steered him to Steve Feld, ethnomusicologist and expert on the subject. Since 1976, Feld had made extensive field recordings in the Bosavi rainforest of Papua, New Guinea.
Feld is a UNM professor of anthropology and music, who previously taught at Columbia University, New York University, University of California at Santa Cruz, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Pennsylvania. He is also a visiting professor at the Greig Academy of Music at the University of Bergen in Norway.
In 1983, National Public Radio broadcast “Voices in the Forest,” an experimental soundscape that Feld produced from his recordings of indigenous music and sounds. He and Hart met and played the tape at Feld’s Pennsylvania office. Hart was amazed by the recording and was impressed that Feld had captured the Circadian rhythm of the surroundings.
“Mickey said bring this to the Grateful Dead concert in Philadelphia and we’ll play it during intermission,” Feld said. According to Hart, when the Deadheads heard the tape, they went wild and started interacting with the sounds. After the show, calls started coming into the Grateful Dead office asking “Where can I get this?” Hart said his band mate Phil Lesh questioned why the recording should be kept to a small group of musicologists and academics and not brought to a larger audience.
Seven years later Hart was starting up his new record series of world music on Rykodisc. He called Feld and offered to provide him with sophisticated equipment to make new recordings in the New Guinea rainforest. Together they liked the concept of condensing a recording of a 24-hour time span, starting at dawn, down to one hour, alternating different sounds from the environment with the ritual and everyday music by the native Kaluli people.
“Mickey saw the recording as having a documentary purpose and an aesthetic appeal,” Feld said. “It was also kind of a consciousness raising event. It brought together the concerns of what we call endangered music with the endangered rainforest environment.”
“Voices of the Rainforest,” released in 1991, sold more than 80,000 copies.
During a recent telephone interview, Hart said, “Once the Kaluli realized that people on the other side of the world were appreciating their music, they started to practice their own music more.”
Hart regards Feld as a brilliant ethnomusicologist. “He’s helped me in so many ways to understand the anthropology of music, the archeology of music and the sensibilities of indigenous people and how to amplify their music.”
Hart and Feld have kept up their ongoing conversation about sonic documentation for more than 20 years. On Friday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m., Feld will introduce Hart when he speaks at Popejoy Hall as part of UNM’s 21st Century Speaker’s Series.
Hart’s talk will include stories from his third and most recent book, “Songcatchers,” published by National Geographic. Tickets can be purchased at the UNM Box Office, or call 277-3824.