Banjoist Bela Fleck brings his Africa Project to Aspen
Ryan Summerlin February 4, 2010
ASPEN – Bela Fleck’s parents were aiming high when they named their budding banjoist. Fleck’s full name is Bela Anton Leos Fleck – Bela after Bela Bartok, Anton for Antonin Dvorak and Leos for Leos Janacek – which puts him in a league with three of the greats of European composition.
Fleck has lived up to the musical associations. Last Sunday, he picked up two more Grammy Awards, in the best pop instrumental performance and best contemporary world music album, giving the 51-year-old New York City native a total of 13 Grammys.
But the elder Flecks may not have gone far enough in their aspirations for their child’s musical accomplishments. They could well have added Earl (for bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs) and Charlie (for bebop innovator Charlie Parker), which would have made for an unwieldy name, but would have begun to hint at the wide-ranging musical interests of their son.
The latest name that seems to suit Fleck is Fela, after the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Fleck’s latest achievement is the Africa Project, a multi-dimensional effort that has included two CDs – including “Throw Down Your Heart – Africa Sessions, Part 2,” which was released this week – and “Throw Down Your Heart,” a film that documents Fleck’s 2005 journey through Africa. Fleck has also been touring for parts of the last two years under the banner of the Africa Project, concerts that have him collaborating with a host of musicians he met in Africa. The tour has a stop Friday in Aspen at the Wheeler Opera House, where Fleck’s guests include Bassekou Kouyate, from Mali, and members of his band, Ngoni Ba, including his wife, singer Amy Sacko; and the guitarist John Kitime and the blind kalimba player, Anania Ngoliga, both from Tanzania.
In purely musical terms, Fela Kuti might not be the ideal musician to associate with Fleck. Fela was a saxophonist who blended rhythms from the Nigerian highlife style with James Brown-type funk to create Afropop. But giving Fleck the Fela moniker could result in the magnificently mellifluous name, Bela Fela Fleck.
In going to Africa, Fleck was on a string-oriented mission. The instrument we know as a banjo was invented – no surprise – in the Appalachian mountains. But the banjo was not created by white folks looking to make bluegrass; its origins were with enslaved black Africans, who used as their model various African instruments made of gourds and strings. Fleck wanted to find the deepest roots of the banjo.
“I thought it important for people to realize where the banjo comes from,” Fleck says in the “Throw Down Your Heart” documentary, which had a theatrical release in 2008 and is available on DVD. “It’s been associated so much with a white, Southern stereotype, a lot of people in the United States don’t realize that the banjo is an African instrument.”
“Throw Down Your Heart” is pitched as a search for the roots of the banjo, but the film is no archeological/sociological dig for exactly how centuries-old, relatively primitive African instruments became the modern, wood-and-steel American version of the banjo. Early on in the film, Fleck says that he “just wants to make great music,” and this statement guides the story. Fleck travels to four countries – Tanzania and Uganda in the East; Gambia and Mali in the West – and in each setting he locates the best players. The jams that result make up the bulk of “Throw Down Your Heart.”
The focus on the instruments – the lute-like akonting from Gambia, the ngoni from Mali, a gigantic xylophone that almost literally takes an entire Ungandan village to play – is incidental, but fascinating. The sounds that come out of the contraptions belie the sometimes crude, improvised look of the instruments. And the musicians Fleck tracks down – especially Ngoliga, and the internationally renowned singer Oumou Sangare, whose revered status in her native Mali is amazing to witness – are routinely fabulous. Equally noteworthy is the depiction of just how significant music is in African life.
It is another statement from Fleck, however, that really gets to the heart of “Throw Down Your Heart.” He says his main purpose in going to Africa was “to find a role for the banjo in their music,” and this he does, over and over, from a jam in a rural Ugandan village – the African version of the campground scene at American bluegrass festivals – to a club performance in the Malian capital of Bamako. Fleck was well-prepared, musically, for the trip – “I pretty much knew what we were going there to find, but experiencing it in person was fantastic,” he wrote in an e-mail interview with The Aspen Times – but it is still mind-boggling to see him in action, finding common musical ground, on the fly, with musicians from another continent, playing unfamiliar tunes on unfamiliar instruments.
“Playing with them almost felt like the banjo was supposed to be there, with them,” Fleck says in the documentary.
Of course, Fleck has made the banjo appear like a natural fit in a lot of settings that don’t ordinarily feature a banjo. In his long-running quartet the Flecktones, Fleck combines a number of elements, most prominently jazz and funk. A year ago, Fleck appeared in Aspen as a member of the Sparrow Quartet, an ensemble led by fellow banjoist (and Fleck’s girlfriend at the time, now his wife) Abigail Washburn that mixed Chinese folk songs, Appalachian gospel tunes, blues and more. The 2007 album “The Enchantment” paired Fleck with pianist Chick Corea for a collection of jazz duets.
In his fruitful collaboration with bassist Edgar Meyer – one that began with a chance meeting in Aspen, in the early ’80s – Fleck has explored a more formal brand of music. Meyer co-produced Fleck’s 2001 album, “Perpetual Motion,” which featured banjo arrangements of works by Bach, Chopin, Paganini and other classical composers; it earned Grammy Awards for Instrumental Arrangement and for Classical Crossover Album. The two composed a double concerto for banjo and bass, and, with Indian-born percussionist Zakir Hussain, a triple concerto for banjo, bass and tabla. That trio is scheduled to appear in Aspen this summer, with an Aug. 18 date at the Aspen Music Festival. Fleck is planning to compose a banjo concerto next year, but also aims to continue working in the trio.
“I want to do more with Indian music, since I have the luxury of spending a lot of time with Zakir,” he wrote via e-mail. “It is a new friend and an old friend, the joy of the Zakir’s time and flow, combined with Edgar’s incredible harmony and quirky genius.”
Fleck accomplished his goal of bringing the banjo back to Africa and finding a place for the instrument in contemporary African music. But the ultimate point of “Throw Down Your Heart” may not be that the banjo fits in in Africa so much as Fleck fits in, no matter the musical context.