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MAUI BEAT: Virtuoso on the heart strings

Banjo master Bela Fleck goes to Africa to discover the roots of his instrument … and so much more

June 5, 2008
By JON WOODHOUSE, Contributing Writer
Land an American banjo virtuoso and a film crew in the midst of a host of amazing African musicians and you have the essential ingredients for a remarkable, exhilarating documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart,” screening at the Maui Film Festival on June 12.

On a cross-cultural odyssey to discover the African roots of his instrument, banjo wizard Bela Fleck journeyed to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali, accompanied by his filmmaker brother, Sascha Paladino, to create music with some of the foremost artists of four nations.

The leader of the groundbreaking fusion band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is no stranger to novel collaborations. He’s played with an array of acclaimed artists from Tuvan throat singer Ondar and Indian tabla master Zakir Hussein to jazz great Chick Corea. A brilliant, multi-Grammy winner, Fleck ranks as the only musician in history nominated in the pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, country and spoken word categories.

“I had heard for a long that the banjo had come from Africa and I was curious whether there were some guys over there still playing music that would be familiar to us,” says Fleck about the inspiration for his project. “That curiosity was stoked by hearing some African music that I fell in love with. It had nothing to do with the banjo, it was a woman named Oumou Sangari. Jeff Coffin of the Flecktones played it on the bus one night and I was transfixed. It was one of the greatest things I had ever heard, along the lines of hearing Earl Sruggs play the banjo for the first time or the Beatles. I just wanted to play with that kind of music.

“Sascha was in between jobs and we needed a road manager for a tour and we asked him and he said yes, but he wanted something artistic to pursue. We got him a camera from Sony and he ended up making a short film about me and (acclaimed classical bassist) Edgar’s (Meyer) thorny relationship and it won some awards. When I began talking about going to Africa, the head of Sony Classical said, ‘You should take your brother and film it.’ Then about a month before the trip, Sony backed out completely and left us holding the bag whether to go or not, and we decided to go.”

The winner of the 24 Beats Per Second Audience Award at Austin’s SXSW fest, where audiences erupted in spontaneous applause after each on-screen performance, “Throw Down Your Heart” has earned rave reviews.

“Fleck generously steps back and lets the local musicians shine,” praised the Austin American-Statesman. “Together they evoke naked humanity —tears, laughter, passion and the unalloyed bliss of making music.”

Aintitcoolnews hailed its “mesmerizing collection of music,” and Popmatters praised: “Quick edits that jump from musician to musician like a call and response so enhance the experience of watching these guys and girls welcome the banjo back, it’s easy to forget it’s just a movie.”

Before journeying to Africa, Paladino had previously directed short films on his brother and Meyer, an Italian communist rockabilly band, and a subway artist in New York City. He’s currently working on an animated show for Nickelodeon teaching Chinese to preschoolers.

The ambitious project proved logistically challenging. “It was mind-boggling wearing the hats of producer and director, making sure everything was lined up and we had a place to sleep, and making good creative choices,” says Paladino. “My head was spinning every day.”

So how did they locate so many remarkable musicians?

“A woman had contacted me who leads safaris in Africa and she had asked if I would lead a safari of banjo players from the United Sates taking lessons around the camp fire,” Fleck reports. “It sounded like a horrendous idea. I didn’t want to go to Africa with beginning banjo players; I wanted to play with African musicians. She said she knew a lot of musicians and started sending me tapes. We actually held auditions in Uganda and everybody passed, they were all awesome. In Tanzania I was ransacking through tapes of living musicians and I found this guy doing a song on a compilation that blew me away. He’s Anania and he ended up being the star of the movie. I made it through all this lame Afro-pop-reggae stuff and then you find the real thing. We managed to find (Malian female star) Oumous Sangari on a rare trip to the United States. And then there’s the Jatta family (of Gambia) and there’s a lot of buzz about them in the banjo community, because they’re the guys that play the instrument most related to the banjo.”

The Jatta musicians are acclaimed as the primary exponents of the akonting, a gourd wrapped in animal skin with three twangy strings that’s considered the grandfather of the banjo. Fleck’s obvious joy in locating the root source of his instrument is just one of the doc’s highlights.

Others include Anania, the extraordinary, blind thumb piano player from Uganda (“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way,” Fleck reveals after the collaboration), the soulful diva of Mali, a proud Masai chorus, the dazzling, flamenco-flavored guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, and a giant wooden marimba party.

In a remote Ugandan village, the banjo legend encounters a massive marimba played at breathtaking, lightning speed by a group of local musicians.

“That thing was quite a shock,” says Fleck. “I had never heard anything like it or been in a situation like it.”

“We were all kind of shocked — can we film it, can he play with it?” adds Paladino. “When they play it the ground literally shakes.”

Both musician and director were profoundly moved by their five-week-long, cross-cultural interchange.

“It felt like my world expanded and the world got smaller,” notes Paladino.

“Everything since I went to Africa has been different, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes more overt ways, but the way I’m thinking about rhythm and the kinds of language in my fingers and in my head is different,” reports Fleck, who is looking forward to touring Hawaii with the Flecktones in November.

“And that’s what I wanted. When I started the trip I was a little jaded and needed to get shook up a bit and get some new information. For almost two years we were listening to this stuff over and over and it really imprints itself on you.”

The Maui Film Festival’s opening screenings on Wednesday include three films with a music emphasis. With a combined age of 2,000 years, the veteran stars of “Young @ Heart” (Celestial Cinema, 10 p.m.) have been drawing rapturous reviews for their unique renditions of rock and soul favorites from James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” to David Bowie’s “Golden Years” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna be Sedated.”

The Young @ Heart chorus comprises an eclectic bunch of elderly folks from New England with a passion for music.

“ ‘Young @ Heart’ is a heartening and poignant affirmation of the transformative power of music,” praised USA Today. The Boston Globe lauded it as “the most rapturously received documentary” at Sundance, and a Newsweek reviewer noted: “There are scenes in this exhilarating movie that startled me with their power. The group performs at a low-security prison, and the reactions of the young, tough cons —caught by surprise by the deep feelings the concert evokes— are unforgettable.”

“The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio” (McCoy Theater, 6 p.m.) comprises 30 musicians from different lands playing 15 seemingly unrelated instruments, creating music that never existed before.

It’s a moving account of a couple of Italian music lovers in Rome who decide to make a band with local immigrants. Among the outstanding players — a Tunisian singer, a Cuban trumpet player, and a pair of Indian tabla players.

With a stirring soundtrack that includes new music by Eddie Vedder, “Body of War” (Castle Theater, 4 p.m.) documents the trials of Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran paralyzed from a bullet to the spine (shot in a Humvee that lacked armor), on a physical and emotional journey as he adapts to his new body and begins to question the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Praised by Time magazine as an, “almost unbearably moving, superb documentary,” the film is released with an accompanying soundtrack that features songs, “that inspired, motivated, and at times, literally saved me over the past few years,” Young explained in an interview.

Among the artists included are Neil Young, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Rage Against The Machine, and Public Enemy.

• Contact Jon Woodhouse at jonwoodh@hawai

Article Photos

Bela Fleck collaborates with master musicians across Africa in this powerful, joyous film project.

Photo provided by the Maui Film Festival

Fact Box

Maui Film Festival at Wailea and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
• “Throw Down Your Heart” will screen on June 12 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center at 8 p.m., followed by the world premiere of the reggae doc “Dreadlock Rock” by Big Island musician Jack Miller. Tickets are $10 for individual screenings. For more info on Fleck’s doc check out www.throwdownyour



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