African American

By FoodNerd August 7, 2009

Think of all your preconceived notions about the banjo.  Now forget them.

This may not be news to you (if you're a banjo and/or African studies aficionado that is), but the twangy, hillbilly banjo—like so many instruments used in American music—originally hails from Africa.  Sascha Paladino's new documentary, Throw Down Your Heart (USA, 2009), documents musician Bela Fleck's travels through Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali, where he went to find the banjo's roots.

[caption id="attachment_11236" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Bela Fleck plays with Ugandan musicians in Throw Down Your Heart"]Bela Fleck plays with Ugandan musicians in Throw Down Your Heart [/caption]

Fleck—named after composers Bela Bartok, Antonin Dvorak, and Leos Janacek—is the world's most famous banjo player. A true virtuoso, he chose a series of dynamite collaborators in Africa, playing the banjo alongside an enormous Ugandan marimba, Tanzanian thumb piano, Gambian akonting (the banjo's forebear), and the powerful Malian vocals of superstar Oumou Sangare. His African collaborators play rough-looking yet precise instruments with a complexity to match the American's slick chops.

The result is 97 minutes of gorgeous and surprising music.  It's not in a hurry, but you don't want it to be.  In Fleck's hands, the banjo trips through cascading scales with unbelievable speed.  Surprisingly inarticulate, Bela Fleck knows how to make music talk, even over the deepest language barrier.

If you've ever wondered about the variations between different African musical traditions, this is the film for you.  From Uganda to Tanzania, Gambia to Mali, each nation's sound is distinct, and the banjo fits seamlessly into the joint compositions. Each national segment also includes delightful moments like watching Malian guitarist Djelimady Tounkara outpace speed-demon Fleck, then compose a song with him. This isn't Beverly Hillbillies anymore.

See Throw Down Your Heart , winner of Audience Awards at Vancouver Film Festival and SXSW, at Northwest Film Forum today through next Thursday at 7pm.
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