In 2005, Béla Fleck took the trip to Africa that he'd been dreaming about for years. His purpose: to bring the banjo back to its roots and diminish what he perceived as its role in a specious Southern stereotype (think Deliverance).
Fleck visited Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali with his audio engineer, Dave Sinko, and half-brother Sascha Paladino, who directed this documentary of the trip, Throw Down Your Heart. The movie opens Friday at The Kentucky Theatre for a three-day run.
If Fleck's goal was to put the banjo into a wider, worldlier context, he succeeded. But he also accomplished something even more important: bringing to light some of the most heartfelt music in the world and some of the most accomplished singers and musicians on the African continent.
His first stop in Africa, the Ugandan village of Jinja, establishes the film's agenda: Fleck and his crew meet, collaborate (and sometimes dine) with local musicians and villagers. And then they leave. These visits are deeply rewarding and educational for everyone. When it's time to go, Fleck has trouble holding back the tears.
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Throughout the film, viewers learn plenty, too. We see Fleck improvising with African musicians on instruments like the thumb piano and various versions of a banjo: akonting, n'goni and Kamal n'goni. We also meet several extraordinary performers, like blind singer/thumb pianist Anania Ngoliga and mind-blowing acoustic guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.
One of the musical highlights involves Oumou Sangare, a star in Mali, where she drives around in a Lexus and is greeted everywhere like Beyoncé. Sangare tells her story: She was raised fatherless. By the time she was 13, she was earning money singing at weddings and other events. Eventually, she became a pop star.
In Heart, she goes into the studio with Fleck to record Djorolen, a sorrowful ballad about a "worried songbird" who sings for those who have lost their fathers. Sangare is a songbird herself, and backed only by some plaintive chords from Fleck's banjo, she delivers a stunning and moving rendition of the traditional song.
In that light, the banjo looks far removed from its role in the stereotypes that Fleck, a onetime Lexington resident, is trying to dispel. But this rewarding film does more than rescue the banjo from its hillbilly past. It reminds us that, in some of the most remote places in the world, people make beautiful music not as a means to fame and fortune but for a daily source of love and nourishment, like family, food and prayer.