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Béla Fleck has spent most of his career moving the banjo into the future--i.e., away from what he calls "the white southern stereotype" and, with the help of his band the Flecktones, into genres not normally associated with the instrument--but with Throw Down Your Heart, he goes in the opposite direction, traveling to Africa to explore the banjo's ancient roots. Joined by documentary filmmaker Sascha Paladino, Fleck journeys to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali, where he jams with (and records) a variety of musicians (most of whom, ironically, have never so much as seen a banjo before), and the results are consistently lilting and joyous. In the Ugandan village of Nakisenyi, Fleck accompanies several locals playing a gigantic marimba as others sing, clap, and play wood blocks. In a small Tanzanian town, he sits in with some folks playing the kalimba, or thumb piano, while in Dar es Salaam, that country's largest city, he guests with an electric band with a kind of Afro-Cuban sound. In Gambia he jams with a fellow who plays a long-necked, three-stringed instrument called the akonting, a distant relative of the banjo, and in Mali he meets singer Oumou Sangare, one of the country's biggest stars. Fleck is appropriately deferential in all instances, and the interaction between the musicians is natural and intuitive; the Africans may be blown away by his virtuoso technique, but they are no slouches themselves, so these are meetings between equals. There are occasional glances at other aspects of African culture and history (such as the Tanzanian slave trade), but the music's the thing, and if the main program doesn't satisfy one's hunger for these wonderfully infectious sounds, an hour of bonus scenes and performances surely will. Fleck and Paladino also contribute an audio commentary track. --Sam Graham
Amazon Q&A with Q&A with Béla Fleck and Sascha Paladino, director of Béla Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart
Did you actually play an akonting or another banjo-predecessor while you were in Africa?
BÉLA: Yes I did. And in the extra cuts in the new version of the film, there is some footage.I did better at learning their music on the banjo, though...
Has the trip to Africa affected or influenced your playing style since? For example, did you mimic any of Djelimady Tounkara's ngoni–inspired technique?
BÉLA: I love the way it has changed my playing and given me some different thoughts to try. I also got a lot out of all the live touring I did with Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate and the other great musicians who came over.
Have you kept in touch with any of the African musicians or people you met during filming?
BÉLA: Yes we have, some more than others of course.
Some of the musical moments ended up being pretty intimate; were you expecting that? Were any of the musicians uncomfortable being filmed?
SASCHA: I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew that the music would be amazing, but I didn't know how the musicians would feel about being filmed. Luckily, they really opened themselves up to us. Part of that had to do with Béla--when he pulled out his banjo and started playing, it put the African musicians at ease even if there were language barriers. Instant connections were formed through the music, and one of my goals with the film was to highlight those connections.
The setup of the story and the interviews are unobtrusive in that they allow the music to do most of the talking. Did you intentionally shy away from some of the documentary precepts for your first feature?
SASCHA: Yes. It was important to me to let the music speak for itself. I wanted to make sure this film wasn't just a collection of "talking head" interviews. I tried to include just enough of a glimpse into each musician's life and personality so that it would deepen your experience of their music, but not get bogged down with talking. To me, the film is a musical adventure, with Béla as your guide, that gives you a chance to hang out with and get to know some amazing African musicians. One of the themes that surfaced during the filming was the idea that Westerners are often exposed to the negative things happening in Africa – poverty, AIDS, war, things like that. As Haruna Walusimbi says in the film, that is only a very small bit of what Africa is. As a result, a big part of the film is about shedding light on some very beautiful, joyous things in Africa. One way we did that was by putting the glorious music front and center.
Though most of your previous ventures were in writing, are you going to focus more on directing now that you've completed this film?
SASCHA: I plan to continue both writing and directing. I like that writing and directing use different parts of your brain, but that in the end they're both really about telling good stories.
What made you decide to make this film together?
BÉLA: Sascha had shot a film about Edgar Meyer and me, called Obstinato: Making Music for Two. When he made this movie, I got excited about his talent, especially since he is my younger brother. So he became the obvious and only choice when I decided to go to Africa and realized that it would have to be filmed.
SASCHA: When Béla asked me to work on the film, I had been making short documentaries for a few years, and had worked as a cinematographer on a music film in Africa, so I knew a bit about the challenges and joys of making a movie there. Since Béla is my brother, there was a level of comfort in working together that was a really positive thing for both of us. Béla and I didn't grow up together (he is 17 years older than me), and working together was a way of getting to know each other better, too.
Would you be interested in going back to Africa, maybe to places you didn't get a chance to see, and making more music?
BÉLA: Yes, although I experienced so much on this recent trip that there is not a rush to go back immediately. I have some other projects to do right now, and other parts of the world to consider going to.
SASCHA: For sure. There's so much amazing music in Africa, we really just scratched the surface. There are many, many movies to be made about music in Africa!
Oumou said that Béla was better at communicating with his hands, that is, musically. Were you nonetheless curious or left in the dark about what the lyrics were saying? Haruna Walusimbi's song about his father was extremely moving; did you grasp the subject matter at the time?
BÉLA: I had no idea what Haruna was singing or why he was crying until afterwards. It makes it very interesting to watch now, knowing what is going to happen.
SASCHA: I had a very deliberate strategy with the use of subtitles. The first couple of songs in the film, there are no subtitles translating the lyrics. This is because I wanted to put the viewer into Béla's shoes – he didn't know what the lyrics were saying at the time since they were in a different language, and he was really focused on the music. But as the film goes on you start to get subtitles translating the lyrics, starting with Haruna Walusimbi's song. The lyrics, dealing with the loss of Haruna's father, are very meaningful, and they deepen the emotional experience of the scene. So, starting with that scene the viewer is taken out of Béla's perspective a little bit and given more information than he had at the moment it was filmed.
The music created and recorded seemed so organic to the process, did you expect the trip to be such an overwhelming success?
SASCHA: When we first arrived in Africa at the beginning of the shoot, we had some fears that things weren't going to turn out the way we had hoped, and we wouldn't find enough compelling music. But soon we found our groove – and some amazing musicians – and the result was better than we could have imagined.
BÉLA: We were very ambitious, but the trip far exceeded our expectations.
So, I'm a bit biased..but I believe that my review is as objective as it can be. So, first I will give you what I think of as the "bad" point: I think this film is probably about one-half hour too long. Fortunately for you, if you agree, because you are buying the DVD, you can just end it whenever you want.
But you may not want to, despite how long it feels - because it's *incredibly* interesting.
You probably already know that this is a documentary about Bela's journey to Africa to trace the roots of the banjo and banjo music. This documentary is incredibly well done, and will hold the interest of just about anybody, but *especially* if they are at all interested in the banjo, banjo music, world music, or Africa. (Or Bela or Sascha ;-) ).
This DVD would make a great gift for pretty much anybody with any of those interests, especially as, at least in my expierience, very few people - even those who know Bela's work - have heard of the movie, so it's very unlikely that they even will know about the movie, let alone already own it. In fact I'm giving it to a friend who just took up the banjo.
Here enters Bela Fleck, with a third installment of his wonderful Tales from the Acoustic Planet. This time, he travels to Africa to explore the musical and instrumental connections between his beloved bluegrass and various African musical traditions across the continent.
Entertaining, uplifting, insightful, and inspiring -- as Mic Crenshaw says, "amidst poverty is prosperity." Bela Fleck and his musical counterparts in Africa break down all sorts of barriers with the power of music. In the process, they discover their fundamental humanity and how deeply it ties to our common need to make and experience rhythm, melody and harmony.
Although it's not strictly intended as an anti-racist, anti-colonial statement, I think it's the most powerful point of the project. Learning the meaning of the phrase "throw down your heart" alone is worth the price of admission, and I challenge anyone to experience this project and not come away with a newfound respect for the courage, resilience and strength of the human soul.
He is the most gifted MUSICIAN on the planet! No matter what Bela touches he makes it seem natural like the banjo should have always been there (Jazz, Classical, Rock, Blues and yes Bluegrass) . He never over powers a piece or style just blends and stirs....and with a BANJO!!!!!! He has been my hero for many years and this documentary is just another example of this quiet man putting his mark on the world. Would love to get him and Tuck Andres together....
This documentary is a great example of Bela mixing with other artists from Africa to create not only beautiful and unique music, but very touching moments in human interaction. In all of the collaborations, he infuses HIS banjo playing with THEIR style of music. In my opinion, he didn't come to African villages to dominate and blow away everybody, he came because he wanted to learn different styles of music and play with some of the greatest musicians in Africa.
Its a wonderful experience. It makes me smile every time I watch it. Thanks, Bela.