In Béla Fleck’s recent documentary Throw Down Your Heart, he takes the banjo back to Africa, playing with musicians in Mali, Uganda, Senegal, Tanzania and the Gambia in an attempt to rediscover the instrument’s centuries-old roots. The resulting sound is something like an auditory representation of the prodigal son’s return in which the killing of the fatted calf takes the form of infectious rhythms and primal beats.
However, despite the overall uplifting feeling of the music, there’s also a hint of sadness. (The album/documentary’s title, Throw Down Your Heart is taken from a comment made about the slave trade, in which those who were being loaded onto the ships “threw down their hearts,” for they knew they’d never return.) “Throw Down Your Heart”, the most-subdued song on the album with its intricate rhythms—courtesy of Fleck and Malian musicians Haruna Samake and Basekou Kouyate—make this a song in which something new reveals itself to the listener with each play.
Throw Down Your Heart is the most ambitious album to date in Bela’s multivolume Tales from the Acoustic Planet project. The previous two volumes examine jazz and bluegrass from the varied perspectives of Fleck, his bandmates the Flecktones and a host of guest musicians. While both are wonderful albums, it’s been over a decade since the release Volume Two, and Fleck is only getting more innovative with age.
Several of the collaborations on Throw Down Your Heart are, in a word, stunning. Most notable are the tracks featuring Oumou Sangare, a Malian singer whose vocal prowess, charitable work and celebrity status make her something of an Aretha Franklin/Oprah Winfrey hybrid. Those who’ve never been exposed to Sangare’s voice are in for a real treat with “Djorolen”, a beautiful song which pleads others to pay attention to societal ills and human suffering. Madagascar native D’Gary amazes with his fingerstyle guitar playing on the appropriately named “D’Gary Jam”, a six-minute song that began as a 22-minute jam session in Nashville before Fleck added other African musicians to the final cut throughout his journey.
The liner notes serve as a treat to read and a fascinating companion to the music; not only does Fleck describe some of the tribulations he faced in the creation of this project (including Sony Classical removing themselves—and its funding—from the project, leaving Fleck as the producer/sole investor), but each song gets in-depth attention as Fleck notes the recording experience, the inspiration behind the song and most helpfully, a translation of the non-English lyrics.
Though the banjo has been removed from Africa for some time (though its ancestors, the ngoni and the akonting have thrived over the centuries) in the hands of Fleck, banjo music sounds perfectly at home among the African beats and syncopated rhythms of Throw Down Your Heart. This one should be mandatory listening, not only for fans of bluegrass, jazz and world musics, but for anyone who still thinks of the banjo as mere hillbilly prop.