Throwing Down the Folk

Béla Fleck honors the banjo's African origins

Ever since banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck discovered many years ago that his instrument has origins in Africa, he has longed to make an album of traditional African folk music.

So in 2005—when the 11-time Grammy winner took some time off from his band, the Flecktones, for the first time in 15 years—he embarked on a project that would eventually become the recently released CD Throw Down Your Heart, Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions.

The album includes 18 songs recorded during on-location collaborations with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Madagascar. The artists joining Fleck on Throw Down Your Heart include such internationally acclaimed African performers as Oumou Sangare, D'Gary and Vusi Mahlasela, as well as others not as well-known in the United States.

To spread word about the album, Fleck has embarked on a 15-city concert tour titled The Africa Project, which will include, on different dates, onstage collaborations with guitarist-singer Mahlasela, thumb piano player Anania Ngoglia, guitarist D'Gary and vocalist Sangare.

Fleck comes to Tucson for a gig on Wednesday, June 17, at the Rialto Theatre, with Toumani Diabaté, who is widely considered the greatest master of the kora, the 21-stringed West African harp.

Fleck and Diabaté each will play solo segments and then play together, Fleck said recently in an e-mail interview.

"We have done five duo concerts now, and it is a very satisfying experience. The music we will play together is largely new and highly improvised."

Separately, Diabaté will perform music from his 2008 album, The Mandé Variations, while Fleck will play tracks from Throw Down Your Heart, he said.

Fleck said he has long been enamored of traditional African music and had wanted to do this project for many years. He spent a year researching and preparing, and then five months in the cradle of civilization, traveling and recording almost every day.

"The material took shape as I did my research, and often I learned material on the spot," Fleck said.

"I have had an interest ever since I first realized the banjo came from Africa. Albums like Graceland by Paul Simon turned me on, as well as field recordings that my musician friends played me. I got to go to South Africa in the early '90s and loved the music I found there. I also got to go to Egypt and Morocco in the '80s, and that also was great."

In addition to honoring the musicians with whom he collaborated, Fleck intended for Throw Down Your Heart to explore the African origins of the banjo, the prototype of which was brought to American shores by African slaves. He played and examined many different folk instruments while on the African continent.

"I loved fooling around with the akonting, the (khalam) and the ngoni, which were the three banjo-type instruments I heard in West Africa. I also loved hearing those players playing my banjo," he said.

Throw Down Your Heart is a companion to the award-winning film of the same name, which traces some of the travels and the recording of the album. Directed by Sascha Paladino, the movie was screened last October at the Tucson Film and Music Festival and will be shown again at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 24, at the Loft Cinema.

Throw Down Your Heart is the third volume in a series of albums Fleck has called Tales From the Acoustic Planet.

The first volume was released in 1995 and focused on an acoustic take on Fleck's trademark fusion of bluegrass and jazz. The second volume, in 1999, saw Fleck paying homage to more traditional bluegrass.

Fleck said he's not sure when he will release Vol. 4, but he has ambitious ideas.

"I definitely want to go to other parts of the world and do this sort of thing again—in India, South America, China, who knows?"

In the meantime, Fleck's next release will be a collaboration with classical bassist Edgar Meyer and Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain. The project, titled The Melody of Rhythm, features one triple concerto and six trio pieces, he said.

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