Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart

John Kelman By

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Bela FleckBéla Fleck

Throw Down Your Heart

Docurama Films


With Throw Down Your Heart Rounder, 2009), banjo revolutionary Béla Fleck took his instrument full circle, back to Africa where the instrument originated. The third in his ongoing Tales from the Acoustic Planet series, it was the end result of a 2005, five-week trip to four African countries where Fleck met with local musicians, playing and exchanging ideas and values—musical and otherwise. While the CD provides nearly 80 minutes of absolutely compelling music—largely the result of jams rather than preplanned music—it only tells part of the story. Throw Down Your Heart, the DVD, chronicles Fleck's journey in a 100-minute documentary directed by his brother, Sascha Paladino, and it's a moving tale of an artist coming to know, first hand, the true roots of the music that has dominated his entire adult life.

Told without narrative, rather only in words of the participants, the film starts with Fleck's first stop in Uganda, and from nearly the first moments the richness of the African musical culture dominates. There are local instruments that seem nearly impossible to play, including a bowed instrument which, with no frets, not even a neck, a teenager plays with remarkable accuracy. Even more impressive is a massive marimba that's played by nine people and is, as Fleck describes it, "like a big rock band coming out of PA speakers; people don't realize how loud this thing is."

That music is fully collaborative, often involving entire villages, is no surprise. "To the Americans and Europe, the world of the white men and women, there is this negative thinking about Africa," says Wausimbi Nsimbambi Haruna, an African musician who provides much of the film's narrative context. "There is nothing good in Africa. 'They are beggars; there is HIV, AIDS, they are at war all the time.' But that is just a very small bit of what Africa is. What he [Fleck] wanted was to bring the banjo back to Africa. It would be possible for the banjo to come back and play with its old folks, these African instruments. Music is in every aspect of life in our local communities. In everything that one does, music is there."

Fleck and his small entourage, including younger brother/director/co-producer Sascha Paladino and sound engineer Dave Sinko, achieved the near-impossible and, with a minimal amount of gear, managed to acquire high quality field recordings— there were, after all, no recording studios in these small villages and often no electricity or running water. The music on the CD provides the backdrop for the film, as Fleck encounters singers and instrumentalists of all ages and engages in a true cultural mesh. He takes an instrument whose roots are in Africa but which has benefited from modernization (although not always as, at one point, Sinko has to find a creative workaround to a technical problem with Fleck's banjo that, with no hardware of music stores around, could literally have scuttled the entire project) into an altogether different kind of civilization. Certain cultural beliefs may well seem foreign to Westerners, but equally some of the foundations of Western culture are just as difficult to fathom by the villagers Fleck meets along his journey.

Bela Fleck / Throw Down Your Heart Marimba in Nakisenyi, Uganda

There are plenty of moving moments throughout the film, but they're honest ones that aren't dramatized (or, worse, melodramatized) through artifice or construction. As Fleck leaves each village, he's clearly moved by the spirit of friendship that's made him welcome in every stop along the way. There are tearful moments, none perhaps more than at the film's end. In his final stop in Mali after accompanying singer Oumou Sangare in a moving duet, "Djorolen" (also one of the CD's most beautiful tracks), he gives a banjo to a young African boy whose natural aptitude is immediately evident. It might be easy to presume that Fleck walked away from this entire experience with more than the villagers he met along the way, but it's abundantly clear that Fleck left his own stamp as well.

Fleck has never given the impression of being all that comfortable with celebrity itself; even onstage, he gives the appearance of being more an introvert than a showman. Sangare may have only known Fleck for a brief time—with communication made all the more difficult given that French is Mali's official language—but she captured him perfectly with the words that end the film: "Béla is someone who might have a hard time expressing himself with his mouth, but who can express himself perfectly with his fingers."


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