Béla Fleck: Deep In The Heart

By: Court Scott

Béla Fleck by Frank W. Ockenfels
It's late on a Sunday afternoon and I've just stubbed the hell out of the two outermost toes when the phone rings. On the other end of the line is banjo player extraordinaire Béla Fleck. He's called to tell me about his beautiful new acoustic album, Throw Down Your Heart (released March 3 on Rounder) and the documentary film of the same name, but my sympathetic nervous system has taken over and my immediate thoughts are frenzied. I'm not even sure I am making sense. Yet it is Fleck's calm voice, candid and funny descriptions and careful explanation of his most recent, large-scale project that causes thoughts of my traumatized digits to fade and my excitement to rise.

Throw Down Your Heart, subtitled Tales From the Acoustic Planet Vol. 3/Africa Sessions is a years-in-the-planning aural journey of Fleck's voyage to trace the lineage of the banjo to its African roots. Additionally, Fleck used the journey to play with some of Africa's finest known and unknown musicians. Throughout his career, Fleck has relished putting the banjo in unusual, unexpected arrangements and settings. While many of us might think of the banjo as the quintessential American instrument, it most likely started as a gourd, a stick and several strings or hairs. And like the music that emanates from its now flattened, metal belly, the banjo has a strong African history dating well before the earliest European slave trade. In fact, it is from these tragic journeys through the "narrow passage" that the album and film take their name. When captured slaves were taken from inland and finally saw the ocean at Bagamoyo, Tanzania, they "threw down their hearts," realizing that they would never see their homelands again. Fleck tells me this phrase stuck with him, and that the meaning has evolved into something positive "like falling in love."

"It just seemed like such a poetic phrase," Fleck says. "I understood the emotional component." It became important to Fleck and his recording team to do something positive with this effort. "You hear all these horrible statistics about Africa - AIDS and other illnesses, wars," he pauses, "but film and music can show the true beauty of what Africa really is and has to offer."

Béla Fleck in Africa
The whole project was the result of conversations between Fleck, Sony Classical and Nichole Smaglick, a tour guide, who long dreamed of a trip where Fleck would teach banjo in Africa. Preferring the idea of going to Africa to learn and absorb rather than instruct, Fleck got his wish when Sony Classical, upon a final budgetary review, pulled the plug on the Africa project. At that point Fleck decided to make the trip and fund it himself, and in so doing, he was able to make it his own. Having toured South Africa and Northern Africa with The Flecktones, Béla felt like he'd never been to "Africa proper." A childhood fan of the Tarzan books, and a bit of a career "thrill seeker," Fleck long suspected if he made it to Central Africa there might be "great [musical] payoff."

Early in 2005, after months of planning, Fleck, along with a team of five documentarians including his younger brother and the film's producer, Sasha Paladino, traveled to Uganda, Mali, Tanzania and Gambia to capture the sights and sounds of Africa. Over five weeks the team captured more than 250 hours of film and 40 hours of music. This material was tweaked and narrowed down to 18 tracks, which comprise the music on Throw Down Your Heart. The documentary is screening around the country now, and has met with rave reviews and already won several awards. Fleck says it will be released on DVD later this year.

Most enlightening was not what Fleck discovered about the origins of the banjo and the roots of popular music but what he found out about himself and his playing. In his three-decade-and-counting career Fleck has put the banjo in every genre from jazz to pop. He is a cerebral, complex artist, who asserts he was teetering on the edge of being burned out by his role in The Flecktones. They'd been going strong for 20 years and touring steadily for the last fifteen. In 2005 they decided to take a break, leaving members free to experiment with new scenarios. Béla took the opportunity to invest himself in an intense form of personal and musical renewal.

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