Inside Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box
(Above) David Garibaldi
“You need more chemistry than art,” Hart clarifies. “That’s what I was counting on from these guys – chemistry. Their artistry was beyond question. Everybody in this room really can play, maybe too much.” He stops and smiles, remembering something amusing. “I was on the Internet the other night and I saw a message from somebody who was talking about the band. He said, ’Do you realize what’s happening here? Mickey’s got Giovanni and Zakir. And then I found out Dave Garibaldi’s on drums. Garibaldi! He’s bad-ass personified plus tax.’ I call him ’Plus Tax’ now,” he laughs.
Other Garibaldi disciples should take note: Don’t expect to hear the complex stickings of “What Is Hip” during Mystery Box’s live show. Garibaldi lays it down thick and uncomplicated. He calls it “big grooves. I’m not playing funk beats, Giovanni’s not playing Afro-Cuban conga drums, Zakir’s not playing Indian percussion, Sikiru’s not playing African talking drums. Everybody’s kind of playing ’the song.’”
Hussain agrees: “Mickey’s allowing us the opportunity to cross over and look at our traditions from the other side. Now that’s an important thing. My importance as a musician dawned on me when I stopped being an Indian musician. I uprooted myself from my roots. I left those roots behind and tried to be somebody else. But I still have that skeleton to put it on, and that’s really at the core of why we’re here today.”
Of course, they’re really here to practice, not to chat with journalists all day, so we head back to the studio to find out what Mystery Box is all about. Inside the atmosphere is relaxed, but not nearly as laid back as it was this morning. There’s a reason why: This band has no backup musicians. Almost everyone here is a recognized virtuoso, an accomplished solo artist, a creative leader, and consequently possesses an intense personality, laughing a little more loudly, gesturing a bit more dramatically, acting out generally more than your usual rehearsal banter.
This is a big band – 13 pieces – and when you factor in the various guests, workers and dogs that have finally assembled, the tracking room is packed with bodies. Initially, at least, nobody seems eager to discuss the music, choosing instead to rave on about a concert in San Francisco the night before that featured Hussain and his father Alla Rakha on tablas. One by one the musicians position themselves behind their setups, make some adjustments, play a couple of warm-ups, then make it clear using body language that they are ready to go.
(Above) Zakir Hussain
After some discussion of new parts (we would learn that Mystery Box likes to talk about music almost as much as it likes to play it), they launch into the album’s opening number “Where Love Goes (Sito).” We’d heard the album. It’s a good tune. The first time through, it resonates as a catchy song with hit single potential. But by the fifth time through everyone in the room is hypnotized by the lush harmonies and relentless rhythms – especially the rhythms, and the non-verbal interplay between the musicians from which they originate. Everyone is smiling widely, as if they’re on the inside of a special secret. It’s pretty damn cool in here.
We remember earlier in the day when Hart said, “These guys clap at themselves when they finish. That hasn’t happened to me in years! In the Grateful Dead, we know each other so well, can you imagine us sitting around and clapping after a practice? We just put the instruments down and walk away because we’ve done it before.”
Hart clearly is having fun. “In some ways this feels like a new beginning. But it also feels like a logical extension of where I have been. I go where my spirit takes me, where my passion is and where the art is. I’m definitely driven, and I’m not necessarily the one who’s doing the driving. I’ve always thought that I’m being danced. That’s always the best thing, to be in those spaces when it’s just happening and I’m being guided, and I’m in rhythm, I’m in time, I’m in the groove. That’s when my life is right. These are the good times.”