Bela Fleck's African Banjo Odyssey
The banjo came from Africa. Béla Fleck recently took it back.
At least the New Yorker took his banjo -- and his prodigious skills -- to that vast continent, not so much to find its roots but to see what those roots have grown into both in African and America. The journey has been documented on album and film, both titled 'Thrown Down Your Heart,' centered on Fleck's trips to Mali, the Gambia, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda to work with a variety of local players and styles.
"I've been on a semi-mild-mannered crusade to remind people that the banjo is an African instrument," he says.
In this case, the crusade starts in Uganda, with the first notes on the album being 'Tulinesangala,' sung by the Nakisenyi Women's Group -- a cappella for a few measures before Fleck's banjo even appears. The brittle sounds of the latter seem natural in the setting, a strong introduction to a shared musical heritage that's even more explicit in a duet with Daniel Jatta of the Gambia, playing the rustic ancestral banjo. From there, Fleck blends readily with that dazzling thumb piano of Tanzania's Anania Ngoglia, an array of Malian stars (singer Oumou Sangare, ngoni player Bessekou Kouyate, kora master Toumani Diabate and guitarist Afel Bocoum), a giant Ugandan marimba with the Muwewesu Xylophone Group, gospel with Uganda's Ateso Jazz Band, among other intercontinental alliances, mostly recorded fully live on location. (Some of the sessions were recorded by Afropop Worldwide's Banning Eyre.) And on one track he manages to find ways to fit them all together, having had the people he met along the way add to tracks he did with Madagascar guitarist D'Gary on what they've called the 'D'Gary Jam.'
In the film, made by Fleck's documentarian