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Béla Fleck's "Africa Project" (NEW: April 16/09)

The banjo returns to Africa with stunning results.
A new CD & documentary, plus notes on a superb concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Includes some video links.


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.

See and for more info.

The film

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 their homeland).

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. (photo)

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 connection.

The film is now in limited release. The DVD (as I understand it) is currently only available at Béla's concerts.

The CD

The CD of the same name captures some of the musical highlights of the film -- both those musicians little and well-known. It also includes recordings with some other Africans that were not part of the 2005 trip and film, notably South Africa's singer and anti-apartheid activist Vusi Mahlasela and Madagascar's finger-style guitar master D'Gary.



The Concert

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 acoustics.

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 excellent account 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.

Other 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 perfectly.

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.

His tour dates are listed here.

Photos, Videos

  • My photos of the concert are posted here (photo at right: D'Gary)
  • Vusi's final song, done with Béla was "Thula Mama", included on the CD. He dedicated it to the women of South Africa who fought apartheid, and to his grandmother in particular. Here's a good clip of him performing the song in another setting.

  • A video of D'Gary, performing with Miguel de la Bastide from Trinidad.

  • Béla & Toumani (a video excerpt) from a Falls, Va concert on April 9, 2009

  • Toumani Diabaté: a video from the world premiere performance of his newest (solo) CD, The Mandé Variations.

  • The trailer for the film, Throw Down Your Heart
  • Béla in a radio interview prior to the Nashville concert