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Movie Review: Throw Down Your Heart: Béla Fleck Brings the Banjo Back to Africa

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That the American banjo came from Africa is a given. When it came and exactly where in Africa it came from are still under consideration, although Throw Down Your Heart should quell a few of the arguments.

Bela Fleck is one of the most famous banjo players in the U.S., garnering awards, Grammy nominations and Grammies like there’s no tomorrow, along with a fan base stretching around the world, and across all age groups. Not long ago he planned to attempt a little research, and at the same time, to reintroduce the banjo back to Africa. This film documents that research.

Throw Down Your Heart is the story of Fleck’s trip to, and across, Africa in his quest, a joint effort by Fleck and Director Sascha Paladino.  The film itself runs over an hour and a half, plus it has another hour plus of extras, including bonus scenes, musical performances and a biography of Paladino. Additionally, it includes commentary by both Fleck and Paladino.

The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.

The opening scene shows Fleck playing his banjo in an airport waiting lounge. It’s the only time you’ll see him alone, other than one or two incidental scenes. To understand how Fleck reacts to this trip, all you have to do is look at his face. [Like to play some poker, Bela?] You will, at times, see grief, sorrow, joy, perplexity, enjoyment and, occasionally, the overwhelming realization of the complications in his quest, as he experiences, perceives, foresees or understands them. The trip raises more questions than it answers, and there are a few instances during the trip that this realization becomes evident to him.

There are several times when the film goes to a 4-split screen, which packs even more into the length of the film. For a basic two-man operation, the film is done exceptionally well, and is of a professional level throughout.

There are more than a few instruments that Westerners will not be familiar with. Three that I found interesting were first, the thumb piano, a wooden resonator box with strips of spring steel mounted on a bridge. It’s held with two hands and the steel strips are sprung with the thumbs, causing a note to be heard. The second is a huge marimba, made with small wooden logs and mounted over a hollowed out patch of earth, or a larger log, which is the resonator in this case. The logs are of varying lengths and thicknesses. It’s played as any marimba would be, with a wooden stick, or mallet, used to hit the different lengths and thicknesses of logs with varying force to achieve different sounds. Different intonations are also achieved with the hands of several players playing at once.

The third instrument I found interesting is the akonting, which is a three-string banjo used in Gambia, and which is believed to be the ancestor of the modern American banjo. The Gambian version is made with a huge, hollowed out gourd covered with an animal skin, and nailed to the gourd. It has three strings, and is played without finger picks. While the film captures a local musician playing, Fleck comments that some of the tunes they played sounded like bluegrass, with slightly different time signature and different emphasis.

The instrument I found absolutely fascinating is the ngoni.  It’s usually a six-string instrument, usually played by griots, which are African storytellers, who are also the keepers of customs for a people, village or area, and who play at births, christenings and other important events. A variation of the ngoni is the Kamal ngoni, a traditional Malian instrument, much larger than other ngoni, roughly two to three times the size. The traditional ngoni has six strings, but the Kamal ngoni has 12. The musician puts the gourd between his feet on the ground, and finger-picks the strings with both hands, one high on the instrument, the other lower down.

The only shortcoming of the DVD is the lack of liner notes, which would be an immense help, particularly to viewers who have little or no knowledge of the regions, people, instruments and situations mentioned throughout the film.  But I think Bela's saving that for a book.

The title of this film comes from a story told to native Africans during the time of the slave ships.  The city of Bagamoyo, the name of the group’s first stop in Africa, means “throw down your heart.” It was named as such because it was the place where captured Africans were taken to board the slave ships. Villagers had heard the stories of capture and enslavement from some who managed to escape their fate. These people had never seen the sea, had never seen a ship. “Once you see the ship,” they were told, “there is no way you are ever going to return home. Throw down your heart. You’ll never return here again.”

DVD Features:
Audio commentary with Bela Fleck and Director Sascha Paladino
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