When banjo pioneer and onetime Lexingtonian Béla Fleck performed at the Kentucky Theatre in spring 2005 with an acoustic trio, he talked extensively about a just-completed trip to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali. Fleck spoke in almost spiritual terms about the experience, which he chronicled with both a professional field recording team and a film crew headed by his brother Sascha Paladino.
Four years later, with the recorded results in hand, we get a far deeper sense of why the global collaboration so thrilled Fleck.
Throw Down Your Heart is a pilgrimage in some ways, as the banjo has a vast African heritage. Fleck lets that point speak for itself during the album's more stirring and intimate string sessions. Among the most arresting is a Tanzanian duet on Pakugyenda Balebauo with Warema Masiaga Cha Cha, who plays bowed lyre with a resonance organic enough to mimic a Jew's harp and vast enough to sound electronic.
The collaborative spirit deepens on Throw Down Your Heart's title track, one of the few tunes where Fleck's Americana accent on banjo is pronounced. The tune enlists two of Mali's foremost players of the multi-string ngoni, Basekou Kouate and Haruna Samake. The ngoni is often viewed as a forefather to the banjo. But here, the instrument's rhythmic sway is distinctive and deceptively potent. Aided by three percussionists, the summit brings to mind the cross-continental recording the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré cut with American artists Ry Cooder and Corey Harris.
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Two larger ensemble recordings made in Uganda greatly expand Throw Down Your Heart's scope and sound. The traditional Angelina features the 15-member Luo Cultural Association on an outdoor recording that surrounds Fleck with ensemble vocals, modest percussion and a chorus of bowed harps. That Fleck serves largely as an understated voice in the crowd speaks well to the album's deeply intuitive spirit.
The other Ugandan adventure teams Fleck with the Muwewesi Xylophone Group. On Wairenziante, the ensemble plays a 15-foot "giant marimba" set up in the center of the Ugandan town of Nakasenyi over a pit (for resonance). Fleck says in the album notes that "the whole earth shakes when they play the instrument." On the album, though, the tune, like, so much of Throw Down Your Heart, abounds with a sense of joy and community that is inescapable.
Several key African artists serve as a foundation for the album, including Malian vocalist Oumou Sangare, Senegalese singer Baba Maal, Malian kora master Toumani Diabate and Madagascan guitarist D'Gary. All help make up the "science project" tune D'Gary Jam, which began with Nashville sessions involving D'Gary and longtime Fleck fiddle accomplice Casey Driessen. Contributions by a dozen additional artists were added as the Africa trip ensued. The dense, exuberant rhythms Fleck creates out of these sessions mirrors the otherworldly global mixes of Peter Gabriel.
Mostly, though, Throw Down Your Heart has a profoundly infectious warmth. You sense it in the singing, the rhythms and the very unassuming way Fleck becomes a contributing rather than a leading presence here. And like all great music, it finds a willfully unified voice out of seemingly foreign sources. In other words, Fleck's Acoustic Planet is a right neighborly place.