Is there any sound that conjures old-time Americana more than the plunking of a banjo on a tune like “Old Joe Clark?” Imagine that song being played by one of the pre-eminent banjo players of his day, surrounded by other virtuosic musicians. Sounds like a bluegrass hoedown, doesn’t it. Well, not quite—not if it’s the scene in the fabulous documentary Throw Down Your Heart featuring banjoist Béla Fleck & Mali’s Jatta family, a group that features not only drums & percussion, but also the akonting, the three string west African instrument that is considered the banjo’s most direct ancestor. (Note: if you saw this film in the theater & don’t recall this scene, it’s because it’s included in the DVD’s generous selection of bonus performances).
For those who aren’t familiar with Mr Fleck, he’s truly a banjo maestro playing in the 3-finger bluegrass style developed by Earl Scruggs. However, Fleck has long ago expanded far beyond bluegrass for forays into jazz, classical, pop & world music; in fact, Fleck has been nominated for grammy awards in nine categories, more than any other musician. Fleck names his main musical influences as Chick Corea, Charlie Parker & Earl Scruggs, so you get the idea that his musical tastes are inclusive; he’s also recorded with a wide variety of musicians—from Newgrass mandolin wiz Sam Bush to tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.
Fleck’s idea in the Throw Down Your Heart project is to connect the banjo back to its African roots. The instrument that was variously referred to as the banjar & the banza in colonial America was brought to the U.S. thru the slave trade, & for quite some time remained solely the instrument of enslaved Africans. In fact, the films title comes from a phrase used in Tanzania, from which slaves were usually transported to the east, to Arabic countries. The phrase means to leave your heart behind, because you’ll never see your native land again. Fleck composed a song called “Throw Down Your Heart,” & he plays this (again in the bonus material) in scenes filmed both on the shores of the Indian Ocean & the Atlantic. It’s a moving piece of music—Fleck is capable of making the banjo a surprisingly lyrical instrument; sometimes you’d almost swear you were listening to a jazz guitar player.
But one of the many great aspects of this film is that it’s not all about Béla Fleck—it’s about the music & the instruments, & about how the music made on these very different instruments & in these very different styles can interact. It also occasionally highlights how the different musical cultures can’t quite connect—for instance, there’s a scene in which Fleck is accompanying an all-woman singing group in which the banjo really does seem out-of-place, despite Fleck’s artistry. The film also underlines some very basic differences between African music & western music—despite the banjo’s ultimate African origins, its current incarnation in bluegrass is very much based in European & U.S. folk styles, & Fleck’s virtuosity on the instrument is also based in the western tradition of long melodic phrases & the ability to play difficult, fast passages with ease. This contrasts with the African music, which is based on a virtuosity of patterns—patterns that are altered in concistently intriguing ways to keep the song moving forward, but patterns that are based on a multiplicity of rhythms. Our musical shorthand for this is “riffs,” but the rock & roll or even blues notions of riffs are pretty straightforward in comparison. When Fleck has trouble fitting in with someone’s music, it’s because of the rhythmic complexity.
It’s fortunate for the documentary that Fleck is able to show all sides of the musical interactions; it deepens the film greatly. But I should stress that the vast majority of the music in both the film itself & the bonus material works gloriously. Fleck’s musical interaction with Tanzanian singer & thumb pianist Anania Ngoliga provides transcendent moments, as does his playing with Malian dgoni player Bassekou Kouyate; the dgoni is another banjo ancestor. Malian singer Oumou Sangaré performs her song “The Worried Songbird” with Fleck accompanying her on banjo, & this is startlingly beautiful. These are just a few highlights: a couple of others worth mentioning: Ruth Akello, a Ugandan woman thumb pianist—this is apparently such a gender anomoly that people believed (in her words) “God wanted to create me like a boy—that’s why I play like that;" & the giant marimba in Uganda’s Nakisenyi village—what a magnificent instrument!
I’ve seen some world music documentaries in which the filmmakers &/or western musicians seem to be co-opting the traditional music for their own purposes or glorification, but that’s never the case in Throw Down Your Heart. Fleck is a truly engaging presence on film, because he comes across as a person who hasn’t allowed his prodigious talent to go to his head; he lets his vulnerability show, whether he’s playing beautifully, or baffled (check out his dancing in Uganda!), or in awe of his fellow musicians.
Throw Down Your Heart had a limited theatrical run, but it's now available on DVD & you can queue it up on Netflix. Whether your interest is the banjo or world music or Africa or documentary film making or just plain great music, this is a film you shouldn't miss! You can get a short sample from the trailer posted below:
UPDATE: I was very gratified to receive an email this afternoon from John Bonini of New Video Digital. Mr Bonini mentioned that Throw Down Your Heart is available on Itunes here, & that there is a Facebook Fan Page at this link.