If there's anything Bela Fleck finds hard to resist, it's the chance to play with truly unique musicians. And that's something he got to do plenty during the making of his new album and documentary, both titled Throw Down Your Heart, which capture dynamic conversations between African acoustic musicians and his own banjo playing.
For the CD's opening track, Fleck is crammed into a tiny cooking hut in a Ugandan village with the Nakisenyi Women's Group. First the women sing and clap in a polyrhythmic swing while he echoes their lilting, punchy melodies on banjo; Then the whole feel shifts when he kicks into a three-finger roll.
Fleck recorded a song with one of the project's most intriguing figures—Anania Ngoglia, a blind Tanzanian who plays thumb piano and can make more odd sounds with his mouth than Bobby McFerrin—in a hotel room. Ngoglia—one of the musicians currently on tour with Fleck and the Africa Project—nimbly skips up and down scales and sings in a playfully childish falsetto, and Fleck mirrors his every note. It's a sound that stands out, to say the least.
Considering that Fleck himself ponied up the money for the project—when his then-label, Sony, balked at the price-tag at the last minute—there had to be more at stake than the promise of one-of-a-kind jam sessions. "The project is personal to me for a lot of reasons," he says wryly. "It's the most money I've ever spent on anything, short of a house."
All the years that Fleck has played jazz-fusion on banjo with the Flecktones, he's contended with selective memory about the history of his instrument. "I've mentioned in interviews day in and day out that the banjo is a black heritage instrument," he says. "Going and playing jazz on the banjo—which people always seemed to think was so [weird]—all this kind of stuff was one of the most natural things in the world, because the banjo came from jazz."
Throw Down Your Heart (named for a point on the African coast where people were forced to board slave ships and leave behind everything they knew and loved) was Fleck's chance to further walk the walk, and highlight the banjo's African origins in person. In The Gambia, he recorded with a family who play a three-stringed instrument, the akonting, with an approach similar to clawhammer-style banjo-playing. "The roots are there," he says. "You can smell them."
Still, the film and album offer more than just a history lesson. They also present Africa's thriving, present-day acoustic music—music that's played on rough-hewn, handmade instruments in remote villages and by high-profile acts like Malian singer Oumou Sangare.
The U.S. tour that's now under way offers a more immediate encounter with too-often-overlooked African music. Besides Fleck and Ngoglia, it features guitarist D'Gary, singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, and kora player Toumani Diabate, the best-known instrumentalist in Africa.
"I'm really excited to shine the light on a lot of this music that I've fallen in love with, the idea of this beautiful, acoustic earthy music that is not what you usually get when you hear about African music," Fleck says. "You tend to get the Afro-pop stuff and the people who've been able to break through as pop stars. But you don't usually get a view of this acoustic, intimate stuff."
There is one moment in the film when—for purposes of providing comic relief and greater context—Fleck departs from the all-acoustic format, and plays with a band that has a digital drum kit.
"We put that scene in the movie [and] we thought it was a big joke," he says. "Because [it's] all this great earthy music until I'm sitting in with this bar band, and they've got synthesizers up there and scratchy electric guitars. It sounds like a wedding band or something. We always thought that it was really cheeseball. I can't tell you how many people have watched the film and said, 'Oh, I loved it when that band started playing.' So it only goes to show you that one man's joke is another man's serious business."
Fleck adds, "It's good to remember that this is 2005 [the year he did the bulk of the recording in Africa]—this is not some ancient time—and that the great acoustic music that we're doing out in the field with people simultaneously exists with all the same kinds of music we know here."
During that same scene, Fleck takes a banjo solo and is rewarded by an audience member tucking cash into his shirt. But most of the time during the film, the album and the tour his chief aim is blending in and playing a supporting role, much like he does as a member—not the leader—of the Abigail Washburn-fronted Sparrow Quartet.
"That's an important part of how I conceive my role in music more and more, as listening and reacting and finding a place for myself in the music that doesn't always require playing constantly," Fleck says. "The banjo can be a spice, it can be a lead instrument, it can play all the time, but it also can be something that comes and goes."
Adding the banjo to music that usually doesn't have it is Fleck's particular brand of normalcy. He says, "I'm just realizing it—as I think back over the years—that that's kind of what I try to do with my life, try to make the banjo sound like it fits."
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