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Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate: The Ripple Effect

Doug Collette By

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The Ripple Effect is the coup de grace of Bela Fleck's ten year-plus excursion into the African roots of his chosen instrument of the banjo, originally titled Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder, 2009). Part of a larger set comprised of both video and audio on DVD/CD, The Complete Africa Sessions (Craft Recordings, 2020), these ten concert culls are also available as a double set of vinyl that capture the natural, fluent chemistry between this banjoist extraordinaire and West African kora master Toumani Diabate.

Engineered by Richard Battaglia, then edited, mixed and produced by Fleck himself, these previously unavailable recordings were drawn from a series of duo performances the innovative musician conducted with Diabaté in 2009. The spontaneous sophistication the duo bring to the live performances here elevates the intercultural virtuosity already well-established in the previous recordings in the project (including the video documentary filmed by Fleck's sibling, Sascha Paladino).

The mix of original material composed by both Bela and Diabate flowers in their hands during the course of this album's hour-plus running time. They find common ground for their interplay with uncanny ease, whether the tempo is comparatively slow ("Nashville") or fast ("Snug Harbor"). As a result, hearing this pair in action imprints the indelible impression they share both a child-like sense of wonder and a carefree abandon as they play. Still, they also display a tangible maturity: for instance, there is never a sense of hurry even as the pace inexorably quickens during the longest cut here, exploration of a Diabaté composition titled "Elyne Road."

In its ten tracks taken from a tour stop in Seattle (on the Malian's birthday), The Ripple Effect mirrors its title. As Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabaté explore the melodic and rhythmic contours of the material, it is well-nigh impossible not to recognize the joy these two musicians share. Their mutual pleasure translates directly into the (re)discovery of how delightful it is to inspire and in turn be inspired. Much more often than not, as on "Matitu"/"Buribalal," these performances exhibit intricate interplay rather than merely call-and-response and the purity of such exchanges can be startling. Even the brief back and forth at the outset of Fleck's "Bamako" is the means to an end, in the case of this opening tune, a deliberate invocation of the muse.

In Bela's many eclectic undertakings over the years—from the straight bluegrass of the New Grass Revival to the nouveau fusion of The Flecktones plus various and sundry collaborations with the likes of Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain as well as a series of duet projects with pianist/composer Chick Corea, among others—he's not only posited himself as a serious performer and recording artist, but a musical scholar with a fine eye for detail. Yet he's also revealed himself as a lovable eccentric (at least in part), so it should come as no surprise that here, in the company of Diabaté, he refuses to take himself too seriously.

Accordingly, the set concludes with "Dueling Banjos," first recorded by Eric Weissberg and popularized by the film Deliverance, purportedly one of the earliest epiphanies that moved this multiple Grammy Award winner to pick up a banjo. With this lighthearted but nonetheless penetrating conclusion, in the amiable presence of his kindred spirit, Fleck applies an emphatic sense of closure, not only to The Ripple Effect, but The Complete Africa Sessions in their entirety.

Track Listing

Bamako; Nashville; Snug Harbor; Elyne Road; Matitu/Buribalal; Manchester; Throw Down Your Heart; Kauonding Sissoko; Katmandu; Dueling Banjos.

Personnel

Bela Fleck: banjo; Toumani Diabate: kora.

Album information

Title: The Ripple Effect | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Craft Recordings

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