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April 30, 2009

Béla Fleck's African Banjo Adventures

by John Oseid

New York banjoist Béla Fleck is known for having stripped his instrument of its southern redneck veneer. In the new documentary Throw Down Your Heart, he goes a step further, literally, to the disparate nations of Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia, and Mali in search of the banjo's roots.

Throw Down opens in rural Uganda where Fleck joins a handful of men playing a marimba the size of a minivan (it's shown briefly in the movie trailer above). As you watch him on his pilgrimage, you find that Fleck plays with anyone, anywhere. Like Anania Ngoglia, a charmingly rakish and blind Tanzanian thumb piano player with an unworldly singing voice. In Dar es Salaam Fleck hangs out with a group of young Masai singers and jams in a bare-bones nightclub. In the Gambia, akonting musicians teach him how to carve a gourd and build their three-string cousin to the banjo. And the great Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, regal in all her finery, acts as both muse and mother hen. Her sublime vocals and his strumming accompaniment on her slow song "Djorolen" ("Worry") are a highlight.

In the end, who knows if Fleck really finds the roots of the banjo. And who cares? The film is 97 minutes of kick-ass experimental music. Just ask the cute tykes shaking their hips and swinging their arms in nearly every scene.

More music:
* The film's 18-song sound track includes collaborations with some premier African artists who didn't make it into the film and could well earn Fleck a tenth Grammy.
* Fleck is currently performing with Oumou Sangaré, the Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté, and many other prominent artists as part of his Africa Project tour. He'll also be playing at Madison Square Garden on May 2 for Pete Seeger's ninetieth birthday party.
* Writer James Truman visited Mali and discusses the links between American and African music in his November 2008 Traveler feature "Where the Music Lives."
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world.


Bela Fleck rocks. And the banjo should really be more popular.

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