[11 August 2009]
African music, both traditional and contemporary, seems to be having a moment this summer in New York City. Artists like Oumou Sanger, Rokia Traore, Asa, Amadou and Mariam, and Tinariwen have enlightened ears with stunning cultural cadences. And this past week while ivy leaguers Vampire Weekend emulated West African guitars for rain-soaked teens at All Points West, virtuosos Béla Fleck and Toumani Diabaté played to a decidedly more traditional, and erudite, crowd. They came not only for the hour of acoustic duets between Fleck’s banjo and Diabaté’s kora, but also to view Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary (directed by Fleck’s half-brother Sascha Paladino) about Fleck’s 2005 journey to Africa tracing the banjo’s musical roots.
Though Diabaté isn’t featured in the film their collaboration is the result. Together they performed several pieces, trading contrapuntal, almost baroque, melodies while instilling a synthetic pastoral sentiment. Solo, Fleck played songs he learned from his trip—his banjo mimicking the tonality of its ancestral organic instruments as opposed to the twang-y resonance associated with its American repertoire. But mostly he just promoted Diabaté’s exotic virtuosity (consistently referring to him as “bad ass”). Ending with “Dueling Banjos” Fleck was able to make his point even clearer.