Bela Fleck Brings Banjo’s Roots to the State Theater
In 2005, banjoist Bela Fleck journeyed to several African countries including Tanzania, Mali, and the Gambia in search of the banjo’s roots. The result was Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary about his travels that has been making the festival circuit for approximately the past year. More recently, the Throw Down Your Heart album was released in March as the third volume of Fleck’s ambitious Tales From the Acoustic Planet series.
I had seen Throw Down Your Heart at the Silver Docs film festival last year and was utterly wowed by the music. However, I wondered if Fleck and the musicians from his “Africa Project,” as he calls it, would be able to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the live performances featured in the film. Last Thursday night it took me all of thirty seconds to find the answer to that question.
The show began with Fleck playing some African-inspired tunes on his banjo before he introduced two musicians from Tanzania, guitarist John Kitme and thumb pianist Anania Nogoglia.
Although “thumb piano” sounds like a euphemism for something dirty, it’s actually a beautiful and melodious instrument in the hands of Nogoglia. He’s like the Tanzanian Stevie Wonder, right down to his dazzling smile, sweet voice, and boatloads of charisma. The highlight of this set was when they and Fleck joined for “Kabibi,” a song about an ex-girlfriend who apparently has a voice like a chicken. The audience was delighted by Nogoglia’s humorous falsetto impersonations, but I was amazed by his sheer musical ability. The thumb piano is about the size of a cigar box with various metal tines attached: it sure ain’t pretty, but he made it look effortless as he coaxed melodies out of the rustic looking instrument.
The concert’s format was as follows: each artist would play a brief solo set before Fleck would join them on his banjo. While hearing each individual solo was a treat even for a world music newbie like me, the collaborations between Fleck and the Throw Down Your Heart musicians were simply incredible. Onstage, Fleck and the other musicians were not only able to recapture the energy that was so prominently displayed in the documentary, but even surpass it, much to the delight of the packed house.
Fiddle virtuoso/Sparrow Quartet bandmate Casey Driessen also dropped by to lend a hand as the musicians explored the connections between bluegrass and Madagascar traditional music; later, kora player (the kora is one of the banjo’s ancestors, made from a large gourd and animal skin) Toumani Diabate and fingerstyle guitarist D’Gary also joined Fleck to stunning effect, while a percussionist played an evaporated milk can filled with broken glass. The resulting sound was a little bit like listening to a back porch jam session, albeit a jam session full of musicians from all over the globe with near unparalleled skill.
Washington D.C. is a bluegrass town at heart, so the large crowd was a given, especially considering Fleck’s deity-like status among banjo players. I was expecting to be the youngest person there by several decades, but was pleasantly surprised by the number of 20-somethings who attended in spite of the $50 ticket price. But for nearly three hours of music—and the opportunity to witness dissolution of ethnic, national and musical boundaries—fifty bucks doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
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