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(Rounder 0634 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/15/2009)
I have observed on more than one occasion that one of the most creative musicians in any genre happens to play the banjo, that most unlikely of lead instruments. Béla Fleck has taken his banjo to many places where it has not been in familiar territory. A prodigy in his teens, Fleck started, of course, in bluegrass, but by his late teens he was already performing Chick Corea jazz pieces on his instrument, and was one of the active figures in the so called New Acoustic music scene back in the 1980s. After his tenure with New Grass Revival, he formed his own long-running group, the Flecktones, who were wildly eclectic from the get-go, with distinctive instrumentation and tendency to draw influences from all over the spectrum. Fleck has collaborated with other musicians is a wide variety of styles, and recorded a well-received album of virtuosic classical pieces played on his instrument, many of which were a major accomplishment to perform on the banjo.
So to may observers, it seemed only a matter of time before Béla Fleck would do a World Music album. Actually, it was quite a long time for such a wide-ranging musician to launch such a collaboration, but he has just released what he calls his most ambitious and complex project yet. It's called Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions, the third volume in his Tales from the Acoustic Planet series.
A little cursory research shows that the banjo and its predecessors are very old instruments, which most agree emerged from Africa. Fleck said that he had been interested in doing an African collaboration since he found that out about his instrument. So in late 2004, after the Flecktones decided to take a year off, Fleck began to plan for the trip to Africa. He also wanted to make a documentary film, and enlisted his much younger brother Sacha Paladino to be cinematographer. He began working with people like Banning Eyre of AfroPop Worldwide, who were familiar with the music scene and had the connections to make the trip productive. After record company support dried up, with arrangements already made, Fleck decided to do it anyway, financing it on his own.
Fleck was already familiar with the music of a number of the African musicians he sought to work with, such as vocalist Oumou Sangare of Mali, and guitarist D'Gary of Madagascar. So in late January through early March of 2005, Fleck and his film and recording crew traveled to Mali, Tanzania, Uganda and The Gambia, which with the exception of Mali, are not that well-known in the US for their music scene. Fleck says they came back with over 250 hours of film and over 40 pieces of music recorded, in venues from formal recording studios to a small cooking shack, with several pieces recorded outdoors.
Fleck took his time compiling the material, and also working on the film, which has already been shown in festivals. But now the CD is out, with 18 mostly delightful pieces that capture the wonderful, open feeling that marks the best in African music. Fleck does his typically tasteful and imaginative banjo playing, but he seems to be having a great time just being around and capturing the music surrounding him and collaborating with the assembled players, so he often lurks in the musical shadows. And the guests on the CD range from some of the best-known musicians on the African scene such as Ms. Sangare and kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate to an informal family group, to a bunch of people playing a huge marimba in the central area of a town in Uganda.
With such a variety, the music does occasionally sound like rural field recordings that may be a little rustic for Flecktones fans. But there is also some musically irresistible material that could instantly appeal to almost anyone with a musically open mind.
The CD opens with a piece from Uganda. Fleck writes that he discovered that the women serving meals at where he was staying in Nakesenyi, Uganda, were good singers, so Fleck set up in their small cooking hut and collaborated with them on a piece that's basically a welcoming song for strangers. It sets the stage for the great musical mix that follows. <<>>
There are a couple of pieces that were actually recorded in the US with African musicians. One of them is Kinetsa featuring the D'Gary, the well-known guitarist from Madagascar, whom David Lindley helped to introduce to US audiences back in the early 1990s. Fleck says that D'Gary and his musical colleague percussionist Xavier-Martial François stayed with Fleck in Nashville during a tour in 2004. So they decided to do some recording, with bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen joined in. Though it was hardly an African field recording, it is one of the CD's highlights. <<>>
Another African musician with an international following appears on the track called Ah Ndiya. Vocalist Oumou Sangare, from Mali, of whom Fleck says he has been a big fan, appears along with another of Mali's best known musicians, kora player Toumani Diabate. <<>>
From the Uganda sessions comes a piece called Angelina. Fleck said that he held auditions in a field outside a town named Jinja. The first group that turned up was called the Luo Cultural Association, who used "bowed lyres," which he describes as "harps made on bent branches." The track was recorded outdoors near the mouth of the Nile River, and epitomizes the kind of delightful natural, enthusiastic music that can arise in such situations. <<>>
Béla Fleck's banjo is nearly drowned out by the giant marimba on the track Wairenziante, also recorded in Uganda. In the center of town, almost every day, a 15-foot wooden instrument it set up over a pit which provides amplification, and lots of people join in. <<>>
D'Gary Jam is another track that got its start in Nashville with guitarist D'Gary. But in this case, Fleck took the original recording with him on his African odyssey and invited all kinds of musicians to add parts. Fleck said that the original recording was some 22 minutes long, but it was pared down to six to fit on the CD along with the 17 other tracks. <<>>
While most of the music on the album is either traditional or created by the African musicians on the recording, Fleck wrote the title piece, Throw Down Your Heart, recorded in Mali. The title comes from an expression used by those captured as slaves. When they saw the sea they knew there was no way back. It is also an interesting blend that echoes the sound of Malian music. <<>>
From the Tanzania sessions there are two pieces featuring a blind thumb-piano player named Anania, with whom Fleck apparently especially enjoyed collaborating. The track that ends the CD, Dunia Haina Wema/Thumb Fun is a kind of virtuosic duo on their respective instruments, recorded outdoors. Their enthusiasm at the collaboration very much comes across. <<>>
Béla Fleck's new CD Throw Your Heart Down, the Africa Sessions is a fascinating and enjoyable recording by one of the most interesting and creative musicians around. It's definitely a logical step for someone as ambitious and eclectic as Fleck, and it's also a kind of journey back to where his instrument had its origins. Fleck goes to some of the musically less-well-known spots, as well as collaborating with some musicians known around the world. The result is a generous CD with music that ranges from very rustic sounding, to sophisticated. Some of the tracks do seem to go on a bit long, but overall it's a very engaging blend. The nicely written CD booklet provides an insight into the music and tells the story of Fleck's journey. It's definitely a reason to opt for the physical CD over any downloads.
Our grade for sound quality is an "A." The field recordings are very nicely done, and convey the environment with a warm, pleasing sound. The dynamic range is also quite good, with the sound not being spoiled by much of any compression. Fleck himself did the remix.
Banjo man Béla Fleck has again shown himself to be one of the best musicians overall, further expanding his horizons on this newly released recording.
(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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