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.