From the back seat of Jed Clampett's jalopy carrying the clan into Beverly Hills to the backwoods predators of Deliverance, to most of today's world, the banjo has its roots in the same back hills that gave us moonshine and country music. The fact that today's so-called country music has about as much in common with the traditional Irish, Scottish, and British folk songs that were being sung in the hills of Tennessee as The Beverly Hillbillies did with reality might suggest that some things aren't quite what they appear to be when you're talking about the roots of country music. However it is a little odd that nobody ever thought to wonder where it was that the banjo came from and who introduced it to the hill country.
It's unfortunate, but with country music being whiter than white in its early days, and segregation being what it was in the south, there probably weren't that many people playing the banjo who were going to be quick about admitting its origins were with the slaves who had brought it over with them from Africa. Forbidden to use their drums by the masters, they utilized the string instruments of home instead and incorporated them into their new life over here. Music had always accompanied work in Africa, so here it was no different. As slavery spread, and some were freed, the music and the instruments spread and were picked up by white people who started to use them in their music as well, and early forms of the banjo would have been part of the deal.
Now Bela Fleck is not your typical banjo player. You only need to take a quick glance at his career to see that. How many banjo pluckers list any of the Marsalis family as regular collaborators, or have played with everyone from tabla players from India to symphony orchestras? Like most banjoists, Fleck started with the basics of country and bluegrass, but he hasn't limited himself to just those genres. Somewhere along the line he began to wonder about the roots of his instrument, and that led him Africa. Some people make pilgrimages to various religious shrines, but Bela Fleck decided to make a pilgrimage to visit the birthplaces of the banjo. The result was the hour and a half long documentary film Throw Down Your Heart directed by Sascha Paladino, now being made available on DVD for the first time on November 3 through Docurama Films.
Starting in Uganda in East Africa we follow Fleck as he travels along the coast to Tanzania on the Indian Ocean, and then north and west up to Mali and The Gambia. Along the way we are introduced to the music and musicians of each area, some of whom are international stars in the burgeoning world music scene, while others are local villagers for whom music is an integral part of their lives. An extraordinary man in all senses of the word, Fleck's reverence for his subject and his delight in the people he meets is obvious and heartwarming. Completely unaffected, he's the same person whether he's recording with Mali's diva Oumou Sangare in a modern studio or with a group of Ugandan woman in a dirt floored hut with chickens at his feet.
For those of you who had any doubts about the banjo's African roots, they should be dispelled the first time you hear him accompany what we call a thumb piano – properly known as a kalimba – in one of the first Ugandan villages he visits as you can hear the similarities in tone between the two instruments; they sound like they were meant to be played together. It's not just instruments that sound alike which interest Fleck, he wants to learn about the music which the banjo sprang from, and then record with the people who continue to make it today. There's this wonderful scene in one village where the people are shown assembling a huge glockenspiel type instrument which involves laying keys the length of a forearm made out of wood over a pit or hollow log. Then a group of men assemble and begin playing it together; some of them slapping keys with the palms of their hands, others using mallets. The result is as glorious display of percussion as I've ever seen. Fleck quickly finds how the banjo fits into the patterns they've developed and plays along as if it's the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing.
In Tanzania we meet Anania Ngoliga, an amazing kalimba player, singer, and lover of music. It's the city he lives in, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, which gives the move its title. For when the slaves were brought out from the interior of the continent prior to being shipped east – the slave trade went into the Arab world as much as it did ours – and they saw the ocean for the first time they knew they would never see their homes again. Roughly translated into English they named the place "throw down your heart" to represent their sorrow at being taken from their homes. There's a beautiful scene of Fleck standing in the Indian Ocean up to his knees playing his banjo as the sun slowly sets behind him. The juxtaposition of his song, which captures the sorrow of the place, and the beauty of the scene, sum up so much of the history of Africa and its people.
When we jump across the continent to Mali and the Gambia, Fleck meets up with people who are playing some of the instruments from which the banjo obviously descended. Bassekou Kouyate plays the ngoni, a two-stringed instrument with a body made from either wood or a hollowed out gourd covered in rawhide. When he and Fleck sit down to jam in Kouyate's living room their instruments bridged whatever communication gap existed between them (Kouyate didn't speak English and Fleck didn't speak French). While there were obvious differences between the two instruments in construction, the similarities were equally obvious and the men were able to play together without any rehearsal. On the special features section of the disc that includes extra scenes that were cut from the theatrical version of the film, there's an extended version of the two them doing a brilliant blues jam.
Everywhere Fleck went he seemed to find people of like mind. Neither he nor anyone he met had too far to travel before they were on the same page musically. There was an obvious connection between what type of music the banjo was comfortable playing and what was being played by the musicians he was meeting no matter what instruments they were utilizing. Its an amazing site to see people from such different cultural backgrounds finding common ground with their instruments with such ease. As the film progresses you are left with no doubt that the banjo has come home.
Considering how much of the film was recorded under less than ideal conditions, the sound and picture quality are amazing — it even comes with a choice of either Dolby stereo or 5.1 surround sound. The only disappointing thing that I found with the package was the lack of liner notes. It would have been helpful – and useful – to have included a breakdown of the various locations and who was appearing in each scene, as well as background information on each of the musicians who appeared in the film. After all, they are an integral part of Fleck's pilgrimage.
However, that quibble aside, this is a wonderful movie, and you couldn't ask for a more passionate or interested pair of eyes to see this world through than those of Bela Fleck. While he might be learning about the banjo and the music that is responsible for its development, we're learning about him. His genuine delight in everything and everyone he encounters, combined with his willingness to accept that anybody could have something to teach him, makes him the ideal conduit for us to learn through. Even if you already are familiar with the music from parts of Africa, Throw Down Your Heart will take you further and deeper into the music than you'll have experienced before while introducing you to some of the amazing musicians who create it. All in all a pilgrimage well worth taking.