In To Africa

fleckWe recently watched Béla Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart (2008).

I knew nothing about Fleck other than he was a highly respected genre-bending musician, but I’ve heard his name so often, and even that of this film, that I thought it was time to find out something.

So, if you are as ignorant as I was (God help you), Béla Fleck plays the banjo like nobody else before or since.  Bluegrass, jazz, Bach.  Wikipedia tells me that his parents named him after no fewer than three East European classical composers.

And so after a 25-year career spent transforming the reputation and the limits of the banjo, Fleck decided to take the instrument to Africa.  Although it’s been associated in recent years most often with bluegrass music, the banjo is believed to have descended from an African instrument whose memory was carried across the Atlantic on the slave ships.  Although almost no one from Africa in the film has seen or heard a banjo before, most of the Africans take readily to the instrument, in part, I suspect, because of Fleck’s winning personality.

The continental tour begins in Uganda and travels onward to Tanzania, Senegal/Gambia, and finally to Mali.  It’s a carefully and cleverly constructed itinerary that carries a few good stories along with it from place to place, and is built to increase our appreciation of Fleck’s musicianship and humanity at every step.  I don’t want to or mean to sound cynical about this.  I was totally charmed by the man from the first moment he stood outside a dilapidated microbus in the Ugandan bush performing for a crowd with just a shade of nervousness and self-consciousness.  And then a local comes out of the crowd carrying a single-stringed, bowed instrument and plays a few licks for the stranger.  Fleck responds warmly, as the situation demands; but you can sense his unease as he starts off on this strange new path.

If there was any discomfort in that first encounter, it quickly vanishes as the village accepts his presence and arranges for him to become part of the daily musical practice of the community, whether that is listening to women sing as they cook, or taking part in a huge marimba orchestra.  Fleck struggles to find a way to insert his instrument into a roaring ensemble of persuasion instruments and mad panpipes; you can see him earnestly trying to learn the conventions, the rhythms, the scales he has to master.

In Tanzania, the music changes and now there are vocal ensembles (that is, families who sing together) and a marvelous blind musician who sings and accompanies himself sometimes on the thumb piano.  Anania Ngoliga is a wonder in both talents.  His singing is fluid and yet always surprising in its phrasing; as for the thumb piano, again I had no idea that such a simple instrument had such a range of sonority and emotion.  And Fleck finds an easy way (or so it seems–the film is superbly edited) to insert his own idioms into the conversations with Anania.

Then it’s on to Senegambia, the likely originating point of the banjo, where Fleck meets a maestro of the akonting, the instrument he’s easily persuaded is the ancestor of his own.  Where the first encounters in Uganda and Tanzanaia were tentative, the meeting of minds, of banjo and akonting, in the Gambia is immediate, easy, emotional, electric.

In Mali, Fleck is greeted like a superstar, although whether that’s due to the superstar status of his hostess, Oumou Sangare, or to his own renown is hard to tell.  Mali is the epicenter of contemporary African music on the world stage, the place where Fleck can most easily meet musicians who will understand where he’s coming from, but who will also present him the greatest challenge in terms of matching their abilities and accomplishments.

Of course, by this point in the film, Fleck has emerged as a hero, a man of the people–and again, I mean no disrespect, for I was completely won over by his rough, unpretentious, common-man affect.  Truly: if he didn’t pick up that banjo occasionally and surprise you by his ability to absorb the local musical tradition, you might think he was the middle aged guy next door struggling to fix his lawn mower rather than adjusting his delicate instrument to the tropical humidity of Africa.

And it’s clear, if not always directly shown, that Fleck spent a great deal of time listening to the music that’s made in the villages he visits.  Sometimes the music is the stuff of everyday life; sometimes it is made by ensembles perform more formally; sometimes the musicians are themselves famous performers with national and international reputations.  It doesn’t really matter in the context of the film.  Fleck is there to find out how he can become a part of the African experience, enrich it with his own talents (and vice-versa0, capture the spirit of collaboration, and bring it all back home.

The echoes of slavery are never far off, although the misery that it implies is soft-pedaled.  The name of the film comes from a Tanzanian saying directly related to the slave trade.  When people were brought from the continent’s interior to the shores of Eastern Africa, to the seas that none had ever seen before, they knew that they were to be shipped off to the slave markets of the Middle East.  They knew they would never see home again, and there was nothing to be done except to “throw down your heart,” for you would have no need of it again.  And each time that a chorus of singers broke into a call-and-response groove, despite the happiness on the faces of the singers, the rhythms of their bodies as they danced along to the vocalizing, I could hear the source of African American church music and understand the links that tied people across the Atlantic Ocean.

But overwhelmingly, the spirit of the music is joyous and Fleck has a mixture of humility and determination and belief in himself that makes the film spellbinding.  The viewer gets almost as much of an education in the mechanics of African music as Fleck does, thanks in large part to the splendid recording and editing that brings the manipulation of the keys of the thumb piano or the plucking of the strings of a Malian harp to life.  In the end, Throw Down Your Heart will lift yours up.

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