Bela Fleck Brings Banjo’s Roots to the State Theater

Juli Thanki | April 15th, 2009

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.

  1. Leeann
    April 15, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Sounds like it would be an incredible live experience. I’m a sucker for the banjo, but I’m mostly exposed to more traditional uses of it. I should rectify that.

  2. Rick
    April 15, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Juli, you definitely have a taste for the eclectic. I have a couple of tracks by Bela on CDs I own and he’s just too artsy-fartsy for simple ole me. Its like when Mark O’Connor or Sam Bush start to “jam”…

  3. Jon
    April 15, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Bela does a lot of different things, Rick.

  4. Juli
    April 15, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Rick, if you’re not into world music, get the previous two Tales from the Acoustic Planet albums. Good bluegrassy stuff.

    Leeann: check out the documentary trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDCxaQhhL0A. If that tickles your fancy, definitely pick up the album (Bela’s shows are the only place you can get the DVD right now). Canadian jazz banjoist Jayme Stone also did a somewhat similar banjo/Africa project a year or two ago. Also a good album if you want to expand your banjo horizons even further.

  5. Jon
    April 15, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    “Rick, if you’re not into world music, get the previous two Tales from the Acoustic Planet albums. Good bluegrassy stuff.”

    Well, er, um, emphasis on the “y” in “bluegrassy” there ;-). Bela doesn’t play too much straightahead bluegrass, though he can; he tore up a couple of tunes when he sat in with us (the Tony Trischka Bluegrass Band, southern/midwest version) at the Station Inn at the end of February (pic here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/photo.php?pid=2233729&id=647013893), and you can hear him on a different version of one of them, Steve Martin’s “The Crow,” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBENuoVORJg).

  6. Juli
    April 15, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Bluegrass-ish might be a better way to describe it? Clearly I need to work on better defining my suffixes…

    After all, he learned at the feet of Tony Trischka, so he’s gotta have that bluegrass sound in him somewhere underneath all that fancy jazzy Flecktone pickin’ ;-)

    Nice clip with Steve Martin…Triple Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, perhaps?

  7. Jon
    April 15, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Bluegrass-esque… ;-).

    For the most straightahead of Bela’s bluegrass on record, check out “Whitewater” from Drive (I think I mentioned this as a new bluegrass instrumental standard tune in the discussion of your Steve Martin review), as well as the Dreadful Snakes album.

  8. Rick
    April 15, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Juli, you’ll have to forgive me as being one of the unwashed masses when it comes to banjo music. One of my favorite banjo related songs is Ryan Shupe’s “Banjo Boy” if that is any indication….(lol)

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