Bela Fleck And African Musicians Vist Phillips Center 4/5

Inspired by a life-changing trip to Africa, premier banjoist Béla Fleck brings the result of his musical experiences to fans in North America. He and accompanying African musicians will perform their beautifully diverse music at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, April 5, 2 p.m. with The Africa Project.

Throw Down Your Heart, the third volume in Béla's renowned Tales From the Acoustic Planet series, is his most ambitious project to date. In on-location collaborations with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Madagascar, Béla Fleck explores the African origins of the banjo, the prototype of which was brought to American shores by African slaves. Throw Down Your Heart is a companion to the award-winning film of the same name, which Béla and director Sascha Paladino are currently premiering at festivals nationwide. Transcending barriers of language and culture, Fleck finds common ground with musicians ranging from local villagers to international superstars such as the Malian diva Oumou Sangare to create some of the most meaningful music of his career.

The music on the album is as adventurous and varied as anything we've come to expect from Béla, ranging from the tradition-based opening track, performed with a group of Kenyan women singers, to the exquisite title track, performed with the Haruna Samake Trio and Bassekou Kouate from Mali. Basseko, who comes from a long line of Griot musicians, is an incredible improvising player who plays the n'goni, the Malian banjo. The music he and Béla make together is gentle and melodic. Equally modern is his duet with South African guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, who is simply known as ‘the voice.' His music connects South Africa's Apartheid-scarred past with its promise for a better future.

Nothing can quite prepare the listener for the sound of the giant marimba played by the Muwewesu Xylophone Group in Uganda. Says Béla, "The marimba is reassembled every day, and it seems to be played by a set group of men. Each one plays a certain musical part in the group. I think there are other people who know each of the parts in case someone is unable, or unavailable to play. Also there seemed to be kids who were being taught parts. But a spot in the primary team seemed to be a very coveted spot, and the men who played in this group were very serious and very good. The village did join in - in large numbers, singing and playing flutes and fiddles and percussion instruments. They also danced." It's a sound of pure joy.

Another highlight is "Djorolen," a duet with singer Oumou Sangare, who delivers a vocal that expresses heartbreaking beauty and sadness. "As she points out in this song," says Béla, "it is often the orphans, those who have lost their parents when they are young, who have the greatest problems in life."

"D'Gary Jam" is a fascinating amalgam that exemplifies the spirit of the album. Béla explains, "This track started its life in Nashville. We had a great jam one day, which went for 22 minutes straight, the whole take was really cool.

As to the origins of the banjo, Béla comments, "When I went to Africa I found instruments and players that gave me a better sense of where the thing started. In Gambia and Mali in particular, I found what I was looking for!" This is especially apparent on the traditional song medley "Ajula/Mbamba," performed by Béla and The Jatta Family from the Gambia. "The akonting could very well be the original banjo. Everyone around Banjul certainly seems to think so! Huge numbers of slaves came west from this area. We were told that the musicians were allowed to play these instruments on the slave ships, and that many lives were saved due to it."

 

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