Bela Fleck is often considered the premier banjo player in the world. A New York City native, he picked up the banjo at age fifteen after being awed by the bluegrass music of Flatt & Scruggs. While still in high school he began experimenting with playing bebop jazz on his banjo, mentored by fellow banjo renegade Tony Trischka. In 1980, he released his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, with material that ranged from straight ahead bluegrass to Chick Corea’s “Spain.” In 1982, Fleck joined the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, making a name for himself on countless solo and ensemble projects ever since as a virtuoso instrumentalist. In 1989 he formed the genre-busting Flecktones, with members equally talented and adventurous as himself.
Throw Down Your Heart, the third volume in Bela’s renowned Tales From the Acoustic Planet series, is his most ambitious project to date. In on-location collaborations with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Madagascar, Bela Fleck explores the African origins of the banjo, the prototype of which was brought to American shores by African slaves. Throw Down Your Heart is a companion to the award-winning film of the same name, which Bela and director Sascha Paladino are currently premiering at festivals nationwide. Transcending barriers of language and culture, Fleck finds common ground with musicians ranging from local villagers to international superstars such as the Malian diva Oumou Sangare to create some of the most meaningful music of his career.
The music on the album is as adventurous and varied as anything we’ve come to expect from Bela, ranging from the tradition-based opening track, performed with a group of Kenyan women singers, to the exquisite title track, performed with the Haruna Samake Trio and Bassekou Kouate from Mali. Basseko, who comes from a long line of Griot musicians, is an incredible improvising player who plays the n’goni, the Malian banjo. The music he and Bela make together is gentle and melodic. Equally modern is his duet with South African guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, who is simply known as ‘the voice’ (and what an awesome and expressive voice he has). His music connects South Africa’s Apartheid-scarred past with its promise for a better future.
Nothing can quite prepare the listener for the sound of the giant marimba played by the Muwewesu Xylophone Group in Uganda. Says Bela, “The marimba is reassembled every day, and it seems to be played by a set group of men. Each one plays a certain musical part in the group. I think there are other people who know each of the parts in case someone is unable, or unavailable to play. Also, there seemed to be kids who were being taught parts. But a spot in the primary team seemed to be a very coveted spot, and the men who played in this group were very serious and very good. The village did join in - in large numbers, singing and playing flutes and fiddles and percussion instruments. They also danced.” It’s a sound of pure joy.
Another highlight is “Djorolen,” a duet with singer Oumou Sangare, who delivers a vocal that expresses heartbreaking beauty and sadness. “As she points out in this song,” says Bela, “it is often the orphans, those who have lost their parents when they are young, who have the greatest problems in life.”
“D’Gary Jam” is a fascinating amalgam that exemplifies the spirit of the album. Bela explains, “This track started its life in Nashville. We had a great jam one day, which went for 22 minutes straight, the whole take was really cool.
This was in July, about seven months before we went to Africa. I decided to bring the track along, and add people to it as we went, and even after the trip, a kind of science project, if you will. After things got added, I took some liberties with people’s parts and did a little audio sculpting.” Along with the great acoustic guitarist D’Gary, the track features, among others, Oumou Sangare, the legendary kora player Toumani Diabate, and Bassekou Kouyate.
As to the origins of the banjo, Bela comments, “When I went to Africa I found instruments and players that gave me a better sense of where the thing started. In Gambia and Mali in particular, I found what I was looking for!” This is especially apparent on the traditional song medley “Ajula/Mbamba,” performed by Bela and The Jatta Family from the Gambia. “The akonting could very well be the original banjo. Everyone around Banjul certainly seems to think so! Huge numbers of slaves came west from this area. We were told that the musicians were allowed to play these instruments on the slave ships, and that many lives were saved due to it.”
While many of these recordings were made in the field, in Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali, the album is beautifully recorded. The lasting impression is that Bela Fleck has revealed many subtle facets of African music, from the fully modern to the deeply traditional. It is some of the most exciting and beautiful music he’s ever made. “[Fleck’s] reverence for his fellow players allows for the honey of the African sounds to seem that much sweeter. And the music, well…You’ll just have to hear it for yourself . . .”