Internationally celebrated banjoist Béla Fleck is constantly at work extending the role of banjo in contemporary music. He has adapted the traditional down-home sounds of the instrument to everything from classical concertos to bluegrass, jazz and pop.
In 2005 his instrumental curiosities lead him on a tour through Africa, exploring the roots of the banjo and banjo music. Fleck traveled through Mali, Tanzania, Uganda and Gambia developing relationships with native musicians, while receiving educations in music and culture. His travels were documented by his brother/filmmaker Sasha Palandino and together they created the award winning film Throw Down Your Heart. Much of the rich music documented in the film was also recorded and released as the third volume of Fleck’s Tales From Acoustic Planet series. To further the experience he toured the U.S. under The Africa Project, showcasing featured East and West African musicians from Throw Down Your Heart. Béla Fleck and The Africa Project stopped by Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music on February 21, and the small, intimate theatre was packed with world music enthusiasts full of intrigue and curiosity.
Fleck started the evening with a brief introduction of his travels, the film and the music to come. Up first from Tanzania was Anania Ngoliga, a blind thumb pianist/singer, accompanied by guitarist/vocalist John Kitime. Ngoliga’s thumb piano, of the lamellophone family, resembled a small wooden box with metal strips of varying lengths affixed to the surface. Ngoliga’s thumbs fluttered across the strips creating deep, hollow, resonating tones, similar to the sensations of a marimba.
Ngoliga and Kitime performed traditional Gogo music from Tanzania, singing and strumming their instruments in unison. The sounds were full of body and color, but that was only the beginning. Several songs in, Fleck joined the duo on banjo, and played by their rules with no attempt to upstage the tones Ngoliga and Kitime had established. The three conversed through their instruments, thumbs and strings, creating beautiful melodies that transported the audience to the Eastern lands of Africa.
After two songs with Ngoliga and Kitime, Fleck made way for the contemporary Malian sounds of Ngoni Ba. Ngoni Ba was headed by n’goni extraordinaire Bassekou Kouyate. Fleck briefed the audience on Kouyate’s musical lineage, which dated back to 13th century West Africa. His ancestors were griots or West African poets/wandering musicians who relayed their culture’s oral tradition through song; Kouyate’s forefathers entertained the royal court with the n’goni. The instrument was said to embody a tradition handed down through generations by word of mouth, and is the supposed ancestor of the American banjo.
The Western world’s prototype of the banjo originated in West Africa, and was brought to America by enslaved Africans around the 18th century. Slaves adapted the instrument from several native devices; the n’goni body is constructed from wood or calabash (type of gourd), covered with dried, stretched animal skin. Kouyate himself revolutionized the use of the n’goni, bringing it from the sidelines of traditional Malian music to the lead. He also invented the bass n’goni which he demonstrated throughout the evening.
Ngoni Ba began their set from the stage wings, slowly floating out in decorative silks of lilac and gold. There were seven musicians in tow, four of who played varying n’gonis made of calabash. Also onstage were two percussionists and Ami Sacko, Kouyate’s wife, on backing vocals. Complete with synchronized dance moves, and polyrhythmic beats, the band encompassed the smooth presence of a soul outfit, teamed with the energy and fire of a gospel ensemble.
With charisma fit for rock stars, the band explored the sonic roots of the 2000-plus-year-old instrument. The layering of n’gonis crisscrossed with the percussive beats and vocals created grandiose textures, further embellished by the n’gonis players drumming on the faces of their instruments. Eventually Fleck joined Ngoni Ba for a jaw-dropping jam; by the end Fleck himself questioned the jam’s intensity and energy by asking “Did that really happen?”
The second set was spent mixing and matching combinations of featured musicians; Kouyate even played a solo piece channeling his 17th century ancestors through a piece performed by his great grandfather (seven generations back) for the King of Mali. Fleck connected the various performances with frequent appearances, playing with grace, precision and never upstaging the other musicians; he played in the music’s background far removed from his bluegrass and jazz roots.
Fleck even brought out the bass-banjo for several numbers, which had a lower resonate tone. Eventually Nashville-fiddler Casey Driessen joined the mix, to which Fleck declared: “Woah! Look, we have a fiddle!” Driessen’s Western flair was initially matched with Fleck and percussionists from Ngoni Ba; he proceeded to play his instrument with the bottom portion of his bow creating a low-toned scratching sound. With each stride his fingers and bow picked up speed leading to full-out, fast-paced fiddling, as Fleck breezed beneath on banjo, all tied together and paced by percussion.
Driessen and the percussionist hopped and kicked to the beats as the music gained intensity, ending up in a call and response break down between banjo and fiddle. Soon the string masters Kouyate, Fleck and Ngoliga took stage in a frenzy of playful strings. The wholesome sound of fluttering strings was topped with vocals from Ngoliga, whose resonating voice reflected the soul sounds of blues and Howlin’ Wolf with a lingual twist. Right when the performance seemed to reach a vital peak, all 11 musicians united on stage.
The mass clash mixed the music of Tanzania, Mali and America and resulted in what the band dubbed “Tanmalican” music. Between the crisp n’goni, fluttering banjo, afro centric beats, and vocal layers the theatre flourished with euphoric satisfaction, warmth and vivacity. Satisfied with the evening’s outcome, Fleck applauded the audience for supporting the sonic expedition. “Thanks for coming on the ride with us,” Fleck said. “[It was] like traveling the United Nations of banjo.”
Before the evening came to a close, each musician had a moment to say their final farewells. The music gradually tapered off, surrendering to the vocalists for a freestyle finale. The stellar performance was topped off with an encore of Fleck’s original composition “Throw Down Your Heart”, which incorporated all 11 musicians. The Africa Project gained Fleck and his outfit two Grammy Awards, including Best Contemporary World Music Album and Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Throw Down Your Heart – Africa Sessions Part Two is now available via Fleck’s website: www.belafleck.com