Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Feb 24th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
At least the New Yorker took his banjo -- and his prodigious skills -- to that vast continent, not so much to find its roots but to see what those roots have grown into both in African and America. The journey has been documented on album and film, both titled 'Thrown Down Your Heart,' centered on Fleck's trips to Mali, the Gambia, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda to work with a variety of local players and styles.
"I've been on a semi-mild-mannered crusade to remind people that the banjo is an African instrument," he says.
In this case, the crusade starts in Uganda, with the first notes on the album being 'Tulinesangala,' sung by the Nakisenyi Women's Group -- a cappella for a few measures before Fleck's banjo even appears. The brittle sounds of the latter seem natural in the setting, a strong introduction to a shared musical heritage that's even more explicit in a duet with Daniel Jatta of the Gambia, playing the rustic ancestral banjo. From there, Fleck blends readily with that dazzling thumb piano of Tanzania's Anania Ngoglia, an array of Malian stars (singer Oumou Sangare, ngoni player Bessekou Kouyate, kora master Toumani Diabate and guitarist Afel Bocoum), a giant Ugandan marimba with the Muwewesu Xylophone Group, gospel with Uganda's Ateso Jazz Band, among other intercontinental alliances, mostly recorded fully live on location. (Some of the sessions were recorded by Afropop Worldwide's Banning Eyre.) And on one track he manages to find ways to fit them all together, having had the people he met along the way add to tracks he did with Madagascar guitarist D'Gary on what they've called the 'D'Gary Jam.'
In the film, made by Fleck's documentarian brother Sascha Paladino, the musical tale is given a fuller context. "My perspective on the whole thing was coming as a banjo player struggling to play with everyone," Fleck says. "But my brother was shooting other stuff and you get that perspective -- kids watching from the side, people teaching their kids how to play, interactions of meeting these people who are strangers and became friends."
The journey up to this project, though, was something of a circuitous trip for both the player and the instrument. Fleck has long felt himself an outsider in the banjo world, even as a youth when he was winning bluegrass competitions, and especially in his long, visible role leading the jazz-fusion Flecktones.
"Part of it is that I'm a banjo player from New York City," he says. "And as much as I've studied and worked at the Southern white banjo style, I will never be one of them. I'll always be from New York City. So for me there was always a slight identity crisis of playing bluegrass. But when I studied the long-term history of the banjo, I felt I fit in quite well."
He runs down some of the contexts in which the instrument has been found in the U.S. during the past 150 years or so: "White people learned to play, some put on blackface. There were arguments about whether it should only play 'savage' music or could even be used for classical music. In the late 1800s, everyone had banjos in their houses. Ladies played in the drawing room -- classical music. And in the early days of jazz, Louis Armstrong's music, it was a jazz instrument. Then there was the Earl Scruggs explosion, and I'm proud to be part of that. I love it in bluegrass and old-time. So suddenly I'm not so weird as a New Yorker doing this. But with the Flecktones playing in a jazz context, it was important to remind people that it came from Africa. Black people didn't even know that."
Of course, some black people know all about it. Taj Mahal, just to name one, has been keeping the African-American banjo tradition alive since his 'Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home' album a full 40 years ago. But even members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the most visible act in a current groundswell of young African-Americans reclaiming the banjo and string-band traditions, say Fleck has a valid point.
In a concert Friday in Beckman Auditorium at Pasadena's famed California Institute of Technology, the band's three members -- Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Don Flemons -- each took turns playing banjo on a wide range of material drawn largely from rural black repertoire, many learned directly from such unheralded elders as fiddler Joe Thompson (with whom they made a recent 'Live From Merlefest' CD) and the recently deceased Etta Baker. After the show, Robinson and Flemons both spoke of their own experience coming to this music.
"It's one of those things that's slipped under the radar," Flemons said. "It's not like people don't know. But when you're told it, it's still a revelation. It was for each of us, separately, about five years ago."
Even with having now studied that history intensely in the last few years, Robinson is uncertain about the ability to real common ground between African-American string music and African music today.
"It's hard to connect Africa to what we're doing," he says. "You have to travel not only through space by through time. Four or five hundred years separate these things, as well as thousands of miles. It's not like African culture stopped and stagnated or like America stagnated. A lot of changes have happened on both sides and it's hard to fit the pieces back together."
Fleck was conscious of this for his venture. He wasn't trying to go back to the common roots, so much as find ways to bring respective styles of today together. And the responsibility to adapt, he felt, was all his. He's known as a flashy player of dazzling dexterity, though he has shown considerable sensitivity and adaptability in a variety of settings, such as his work in the last couple of years with the Chinese-Nashville string ensemble Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet and his Grammy-winning duet album with jazz piano great Chick Corea and his long-running collaborations with bassist Edgar Meyer. What's striking with these sessions is how often he lays back and lets the other musicians set the tone.
"That was my goal," he says. "I wanted to put the modern banjo in their music and make it sound like it belonged -- not use them for a backup band but look for a home. Some places I can blow my brains out like with Djelimany Tounkara, the hot guitar player, or with Anania, the blind thumb piano player. But other places I could just be the backbone or look for a rhythmic place to fit in. My goal is to make it sound like it belongs. Doesn't sound like much as a mission statement, but that's everything I do."
The project actually started with Africans coming to America, not vice versa. D'Gary was visitng from Madagascar and was hooked up with Fleck. In a week of getting to know each other, they recorded 'Kinetsa' and the framework for what became the 'D'Gary Jam.'
The latter was, according to Fleck, "the exception to the rule of the record, which was people playing together and catching it live. But he came and we played for four days and by the time he left I was convinced we could do a record in Africa."
It proved both easier and harder than anticipated.
"Logistics were incredibly complicated," he says. "On the other hand, everything did work. Didn't have a lot of rescheduling. Biggest problems were the Gambia when we went from Tanzania -- lost a lot of luggage and the people who were supposed to show up to take us to Senegal didn't show up. We ended up standing at the airport at two in the morning with no one there. Then all these guys at the Dakar Airport who try to steal your stuff, lead you away and say that your people are over there. That was scary. We got to the Gambia a day late, but it worked out.
"And then it went incredibly smoothly. Some pieces of gear went down, but we got it turned around fast and had backup plans."
Most of the surprises were musical. And enlightening.
"For me, playing with Anania was the revelation," Fleck says. "I had heard a two-minute track of him on a radio show that Afropop had put out. Everything was Afropop stuff -- bands with drums and everything -- and all of a sudden this thumb piano dropped in and, 'Wow! That's what I want!' I went searching for him. But I had no idea what he was going to lay on me. He had overdubbed on the 'D'Gary Jam,' but when we went the next day we sat down in front of the ruins in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, near the beach. A beautiful spot where Germans used to hold slaves. He was the biggest surprise, almost like he needed permission to play. He blew me away, kicked my ass playing so fast and improvising at such a high level that I had to jump my game up. I wasn't prepared for how awesome he was."
U.S. audiences might not be prepared, either, but they'll get a chance to see Anania, who is being brought over as part of a tour Fleck is doing to promote the album starting this week. Joining them will also be D'Gary, Toumani Diabate and South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela. (The latter is on the album but in a session recorded during a taping of the U.S. radio program E-Town, not in Africa).
For all the angles and element of this project, there is one simple bottom line that arguably is what made the whole thing work.
"I just loved the music I heard coming from Africa," Fleck says. "And I wanted to play that."