Béla Fleck is frequently
described as the "world's greatest banjo player". He is without a doubt,
easily the most eclectic; his reach has spanned bluegrass, rock,
funk, jazz and styles and musical flavours across the board.
His latest project, four years in the
making, has been to explore some of the music of Africa, and to collaborate
and record with musicians from several African countries, whether they be
major figures in world music, or musicians unknown outside their village.
There are many obvious reasons for this collaboration: the sheer excellence
and variety of music coming from that continent, the African roots of most
popular American music, and the fact that the roots of his own instrument,
the banjo, is West African.
www.throwdownyourheart.com for more info.
In 2005, he travelled to four African
countries (Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali). Some of the highlights of
that trip have been captured in a wonderful documentary titled, Throw
Down Your Heart. (The title comes from a phrase apparently used by East
Africans, captured into slavery, who realized they would never again see
The musicians Béla collaborates with in the
first three countries are little-known outside their countries, but the
music is revelatory. One of the most spectacular scenes takes place in the
town of Nakasenyi in Uganda where the townspeople -- in fact, at times the
whole town -- play the amazing 15-foot long marimba.
In Tanzania, Fleck made a lasting
connection with the blind mbira ("thumb piano") player, Anania Ngoglia.
It was in Mali that the film captures him
working with some of Africa's best known -- and very best -- musicians: Oumou
Sangaré, Djelimady Tounkara and Bassekou Kouyaté.
The film does frequently captures the
ability of music to connect cultures where words and language do not work,
and does often reveal a little of the original African-American musical
The film is now in limited release. The DVD
(as I understand it) is currently only available at Béla's concerts.
In the spring of 2009, Béla went on the
road with some of these musicians, plus the acknowledged master of the kora,
Toumani Diabaté (described by some as Africa's greatest instrumentalist). He
began with a few shows with Toumani, and then the lineup expanded to include
D'Gary, Vusi Mahlasela and Anania Ngoglia. Truly, as Banning Eyre wrote on
the Afropop website, "a lineup to die for".
I was fortunate enough to catch one of
these shows. A bonus was the location: the historic Ryman Auditorium in
Nashville. Originally built in the 1890's as a gospel tabernacle, it's most
famous as the home of the Grand Ole Opry for several decades. Besides a huge
list of country music stars, its stage has hosted a wide variety of people.
(Elvis, Marian Anderson, Wm Jennings Bryan, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan,
Helen Keller, Bela Lugosi, the Metropolitan Opera
Company, Booker T. Washington, are just a tiny sample).
Seating is still done via the wooden pews
originally installed in the 1890's. To say that history drips from its walls
and floorboards is an understatement. And to top it off, it has superb
The hall was full, and highly enthusiastic.
Although most people I spoke to were familiar with Béla's music, and not
that of the Africans, they quickly came to appreciate those sounds.
Banning Eyre wrote an
of some of the earlier shows on the tour on Afropop Worldwide which very
much reflected the Ryman show. I will add the observation I made several
times in talking to others in the audience. Everyone knew Béla's music (he
lives in Nashville), but few had heard any of the Africans, or were familiar
with African music. Everyone I spoke to was (understandably) blown away. At
the end of the concert, quite a number of people near me gave me their email
addresses to get copies of some of the photos I'd been taking.
highlights that stick in my mind: the energy, humour and inventiveness of Anania Ngoglia,
the superb guitar work of D'Gary (it had been many years since I'd seen him
perform), and the passion of Vusi Mahlasela, whose music and talk reflected
his long activism in the fight against apartheid. (top photo)
Finally, there was Toumani Diabaté whose mere appearance against a deep red
background reflected his position in African music, and whose playing
justified it. (lower photo). The all-musician jam that ended the show
included a wonderful moment watching the super-funky bass player Victor
Wooten (a member of Béla's Flecktones who came on for the last numbers),
jamming with Toumani, playing his 800-year old kora -- and it worked
It was truly a treat to see this show (and
in this setting). The only weakness to the concert was an inevitable result
of the large lineup: none of the musicians got as much performing time as
time as they deserve, even though there was more than 2 1/2 hours of music.
That tour has wound up, but Béla will be
doing some more African shows with Toumani Diabaté (including an Aug. 6 show
in Montreal), and Oumou Sangaré (Jul. 15 in Quebec City, and Jul. 18 at the
Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, NY). He'll also be in Toronto in
September, playing with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain.