Highlights of McConnell Library’s Appalachian Music Collection- Throw Down Your Heart

This pick is different from the others I have made so far, this one isn’t Appalachian music at all- in fact it’s not even all music, it’s a DVD.  I picked this one because it concerns one of America’s most beloved instruments- the banjo,  the problem is though, that the banjo really isn’t America’s instrument, it is Africa’s.  I think it very likely that one of the first images one might conjure up when talking about the history of the banjo is that of a slave playing one- does that then mean that the banjo was a slave instrument?  Does it mean that the banjo was something slaves could have made from materials available to them on the plantations?  Does is mean they brought the banjo with them from Africa?  Probably for most people the answer to all of those questions is mostly “yes”.  But is that the correct answer?

Interest in where the banjo *really* came from has really grown in popularity in the past several years.  A few high profile professional banjo players have recently visited Africa to find out more in a first-hand sort of way about the history of the instrument, and they have each come back with a great appreciation of what they learned, increased knowledge of their instrument, and an apparent fascination with exploring the musical possibilities of combining the modern banjo with its African relatives.  When they do combine the instruments, at times the music is seamless and natural, at other times it is odd and foreign sounding.

It’s a great big musical world out there and what I would like to highlight from McConnell Library’s Appalachian Music collection really illustrates that!  This week’s pick is…….

Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary by Sascha Paladino

In 2005, Bela Fleck took a five week trip to Africa with his brother, filmmaker Sascha Paladino and his crew to explore the African roots of the 5 string banjo.  They visited musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali and Fleck experienced and then learned some of the music from those places.  This movie is a fascinating glimpse of that trip and shows some of the joy, uncertainty, and wonder that Fleck experienced while there.  It is also a wonderful preview of new music and tours that Fleck was to beginning to release (2 CDs and a tour so far.)  When shooting a documentary or movie such as this, some things are left to chance, some are well planned out.  The destinations the group stopped at had to be organized ahead of time, some of the musicians that were encountered were also orchestrated ahead of time, what was not (or at least it didn’t seem to be) was the way Fleck responded to these folks and the music that grew out of these encounters.  What I really enjoyed more than anything else was seeing Bela Fleck- banjo superstar- willingly put himself into situations where he was uncomfortable, basically unknown, and definitely NOT the star musician.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Bela Fleck, I am just saying in this movie, he is way behind the power curve and knows almost nothing about African music and has to work hard to get musically up to the level of even the folks doing the cooking for him, people living in electricity-less and running water-less mud huts and others and I found it more than refreshing and inspiring to watch his humbleness and genuine curiosity come to the surface.  The following is not a review, more of a summary of what i consider the high points of the film.

Uganda- home of the giant marimba

The first place on the Africa trip was a small village in Uganda- this was probably my favorite part of the movie because it was here that we are shown that banjo superstar Bela Fleck is a real person with real feelings of insecurity.  At times one can almost read “What have I gotten myself into?” on his face as he tries to fit in musically and culturally.   I don’t know if Uganda was chosen as a first stop of the trip because of theatrical or musical reasons, but I felt it a very effective choice in both respects.  I am not naive enough to think that this village was  chosen by chance, or that any stop on the trip happened by chance, but I do believe that Fleck’s reaction to this village and the people and events in the village were real.  The village appeared to be without any modern conveniences like running water or electricity and Fleck et al were camping on the outskirts of a small village.  In an interview in Banjo Newsletter, Fleck said that there were machine gun wielding guards surrounding the campsite because the Ugandans didn’t want anything bad to happen to spoil the trip.  That sort of thing probably added to Fleck’s obvious discomfort and uncertainty at times and I can’t help but imagine it was a startling feeling for this group of American musicians and filmmakers to be suddenly immersed in such a potentially serious and odd situation.

It was in this (Ugandan)  portion of the film that Fleck appears to experience the most culture shock.  There are scenes of him holding a portable tape recorder and microphone and looking baffled while the villagers sing and play for him.  Afterwards, a pale and shaken Fleck says “I want to blend in……. I don’t think I’m going to be able to blend in.”  The rest of the Ugandan segment of the film shows Fleck working very hard to blend in musically.  Working at night in his tent with his banjo and tape recorder, he struggled with the rhythms and melodies and tried to make sense of it all in terms of his banjo.  At one point he is struggling to learn the timing and melody of a song his cooks are singing, then much to his and their apparent delight he plays along while they sing.

One of the highlights of the trip and the film was a giant marimba that is played in a village celebration.  As Fleck watches, the Ugandans bring together and assemble a giant marimba that looks as if it’s been played for many generations.  The giant keys look worn and well loved and are decorated in some cases with the outlines of hands of ancestral village members.  In a very odd and incongruous scene, Fleck sits behind the players who are singing and beating the marimba wearing headphones and playing his banjo into a microphone.  In a Banjo Newsletter interview, he said that the marimba was so loud he literally could not hear himself play and so the sound engineer in his group figured out a way to have him play into a mic and then to pass the sound back to Fleck’s headphones.  Fleck joked that for once the banjo wasn’t the loudest instrument in the band!

An interesting thing for me was was watching a modern day recording microphone being placed carefully in a trench that the marimba straddles- old world meets new world.  This was oddly reminiscent of the theme of the movie and it was especially in this Ugandan portion of the film that it showed up most often- the contrast between the old and new and it seemed to me that once Fleck came to terms with that, he was much happier.

The final scene of this segment of the film showed several of the villagers approaching Fleck to wish him a safe journey and to thank him for coming.  An obviously emotional and uncertain Fleck wipes a tear away as he turns from the camera.  I am not nieve, and I realize that this moment was either staged or a filmmakers dream, but it seemed and felt genuine to me so I am going to believe it was!

Tanzania- thumb piano mastery

Next on the itinerary was the much more “modern” country, Tanzania.  It was here that Fleck met a skilled and versatile thumb piano player named Anania Ngoliga.  Their first meeting shows Ananias showing off a little bit to Fleck and then Fleck joining right in and interacting with him in a jovial and musical way.

From that point on, the two seem to very quickly form a musical and personal relationship that apparently spread beyond the film and into real life.  Fleck was taken on a site-seeing tour by Anania and guitarist John Kitime and shown the place where some of the people were put into boats to be taken to other countries as slaves.  A saying emerged from those days,  “throw down your heart” because when they were taken to the port where the slave ships were waiting for them, they knew at that point that they would never be coming home again and they threw down their hearts.  Seeing the spot and knowing what had gone on there inspired Fleck to write the song Throw Down Your Heart which we see him play –in a very picturesque moment- while he stands knee deep in the water looking out at the horizon

Gambia- home of the Akonting

If a person were to make a genealogical chart of the banjo family, there would be a direct line from the akonting to the five string banjo.  Why you ask?

The akonting is an instrument made from a gourd with a goat skin stretched over it, a bamboo or reed pole for a neck, a two footed wooden bridge and three strings, one being a short high drone string.  This instrument is played by striking the strings with the fingers of the right hand held in a claw-like position while fretting the strings with the left hand.  Sound familiar?  It should because it pretty well describes a banjo and it nearly exactly describes a gourd banjo, which are still in use today and the playing style of the akonting is nearly identical to what is called clawhammer today- and that is the style of playing you would use on a gourd banjo.  You would also use this type of playing on an old time or open back or clawhammer banjo.

At one point in the film Fleck is told that the akonting was responsible for a lot of the slaves surviving being taken from Africa to the Americas.  The person telling the story claims that most died on the first shipments of slaves, but on later shipments, they were allowed to bring an akonting and many survived the trip.  The idea is that being able to play the music made the people feel more hopeful and secure and not lose hope and they survived the journey.  I don’t know that I put any stock into that theory at all, but it was presented in the movie so I thought I’d mention it here.

My second favorite part of this film is when Fleck is playing music with the Jatta family.  The similarities of the banjo and akonting made musical collaboration much easier and there is a scene where the group is playing Old Joe Clark which Fleck had just taught them.  Old world meets new world and finds a lot of common ground.

Mali-  modern Africa and the Ngoni

The last stop of the African trip was Mali.  Life in Mali is modern and much closer to what Fleck was used to- cars, air conditioning and cell phones are the norm here and also Fleck’s reputation as a musician was found here.  African music superstar Oumou Sangaré picks meets the group at the airport and takes them on a whirlwind trip through the city visiting hotels, stores and nightclubs.  Fleck again claims to feel intimidated because the level of musicianship is so high here and the people who come to play with him know who he is.

Also in Mali Fleck met Bassekou Kouate, who is a phenomenal ngoni player.  The ngoni is another relative of the banjo and I have to say it is the oddest instrument I have seen in a long time.  I held one and tried to make music from it and let’s just say, music was not happening with it in my hands.

In the home of Bassekou Kouate, Fleck and Kouate trade blues licks and odd musical phrases and show each other (and us) that the two musical instruments are quite similar.  Much to Fleck’s surprise, Kouate even owns a banjo and plays it a little.  In a touching scene marking the end of this segment of the film, Fleck sits in a room with one of Kouate’s children and teaches him some three finger banjo rolls.  Old world meets new, finding common ground, however you want to think of it, it seems special.

In case you can’t tell, I really liked this film and the musical ideas that grew from it.  I was especially intrigued by the music of the band Ngoni Ba and recommend them to musically adventurous types.

I could go on and on but have most likely gone on too long already, check out this film, there’s a lot to it.

Throw down your heart [videorecording] / director, Sascha Paladino ; producers, Béla Fleck and Sascha Paladino ; The Old School, Ltd
–  Video-DVD – Level 4 –  ML1015.B3 T47 2009
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