CD reviews: Fleck takes the banjo back to its homeland | AspenTimes.com
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CD reviews: Fleck takes the banjo back to its homeland

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesBla Fleck has released Throw Down Your Heart, the third volume of his Tales From the Acoustic Planet.
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Take me back to the motherland. The Meters

produced by Fleck (Rounder)Throw Down Your Heart is billed as the third volume of Bla Flecks Tales From the Acoustic Planet series, which heretofore had focused on updating, with equally virtuosic guest players, Appalachian-derived string music. But the latest volume throws a big curve in terms of time, place and company.Early in 2005, Fleck investigated the roots of the banjo in the land of the instruments birth: not the bluegrass state of Kentucky, but the continent of Africa. The New York-bred, Nashville-based musician absorbed the original sounds and techniques, and on location in Mali, Uganda, Tanzania and Gambia, he collaborated with a host of African musicians, including Malian vocalist Oumou Sangare, South African guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, Madagascar guitarist DGary, singer/thumb pianist Anaia Ngolia, and Bassekou Kouyate, another Malian who plays the ngoni, a cousin of the banjo.Fleck has already proved himself an otherworldly musician, finding a place for banjo in jazz, funk and Newgrass, always with jaw-dropping results. In the Sparrow Quartet, which made a brilliant debut at the Wheeler Opera House last month, it was a mix of gospel, blues and Chinese music. With Throw Down Your Heart, Fleck enters yet another realm. The music sounds as it sprung from ancient roots, and Fleck sounds as if he had been playing it from time immemorial. Which is not to suggest a necessarily primitive quality. On tunes like D-Gary Jam, the rhythms are insanely complex and layered; the string duel on Mariam employs technique at the highest level. The range here is as broad as that between, say, bluegrass and be-bop, as Fleck incorporates guitars, xylophones, percussion, and all sorts of singing, including chanting choirs on Zawose, to present a wide-angle view on African styles.Fleck has brought the banjo to extraordinary places. The homecoming represented by Throw Down Your Heart might be the most extraordinary of them all.

produced by Marc Antoine Moreau and Laurent Jais (Nonesuch)Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/singer Amadou Bagayoko, a married, blind couple, title their latest album in a long career Welcome to Mali. The title lets listeners know where they come from, but it can be misleading. Instead of an introduction to Malian roots music, Welcome to Mali offers the latest glimpse of what globalization has done to music. Recorded in Africa, Paris and London, the album mixes traditional Malian strings and vocals with horns and organ and, in the best tracks, like Djama, filters it through modern dub/dance/electronica production. There are a few flaws, more of continuity, not quality. The album opens with Sabali, a track produced by Damon Alburn, of the electro group Gorillaz, and the techno aspect is tantalizing but not sustained through the rest of the tracks. When the duo moves into the English language on I Follow You, the singing gets a touch clunky, and the switch from the more exotic feel breaks the spell. Which doesnt prevent Welcome to Mali from being, overall, spell-binding music.



Among my most cherished concert experiences of recent years was the 2007 appearance at the Benedict Music Tent by the combined forces of Wynton Marsalis Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Ghanaian ensemble Odadaa! This two-disc set of the entire suite proves that I wasnt just intoxicated by the moment. The music, which deftly moves through gospel, New Orleans swing, African percussion rhythms and chants, and European classical segments is as exhilarating on disc as it was that night in the tent.stewart@aspentimes.com


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