Full Circle: Béla Fleck, Paul Simon & America’s Return to the World Community

We are suddenly living in revolutionary times. Even though many of the changes are long-awaited, the simultaneous reboot of national politics and the global economy seems to have caught Americans flat-footed. Pundits and prognosticators are becoming increasingly strident in saying “we don’t know what happens next.” We’re beyond the point where our recent experience has any predictive value. We’ve run out of script; we’re improvising.

Another way to say this is that we’ve entered a liminal space — we’ve left behind our old reality and haven’t quite established ourselves in the new one. We’re lost between worlds. It’s precisely this kind of liminal moment in which culture becomes extraordinarily powerful. When our ideas fail us, metaphor, ritual, and symbol help us make sense of the world around us. After all, revolution is not a clean break with the past, but a ‘turning round’, as the word itself suggests. Old ideas become new again. Who would have thought that community organizing, Keynesian economics, and the New Deal would become acutely relevant in the post-millennium political arena? What unexpected ideas will our artists re-animate to guide us through this new reality?

Béla Fleck didn’t ask to be the Avatar of the New American Culture (avatars never do). He happened to be in the right place at the right time with a banjo and a digital recorder. The remaining dots are ours to connect, and we’ve begun to connect them.

Fleck’s African musical travelogue Throw Down Your Heart is fast collecting prizes at major film festivals, and the concurrently released album is justly on track for similar acclaim. Its subject is Fleck’s return of the banjo to its ancestral home in West Africa. Ultimately, the instrument is not the only thing that he brings full circle. He brings the American excursion into world music around again, last traveled with the release of Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. He brings the American experience of Africa back into focus as he confronts the legacy of slavery that bound together the two continents for centuries. Finally, he leads us back to the well of hope that has been the source of social transformation through the ages.

Coming full circle is a satisfying journey — ideas return, connections are made, and a sense of completion is achieved. However, completing a circle is not the same thing as progress. In fact, we’re back where we started. We only hope that we’ve changed since we were here before, and that the round trip has given us the wisdom we need to move forward.

Circle 1 — The banjo returns to Africa, and sounds like it never left

Musically, Throw Down Your Heart is remarkable for how African it sounds. Graceland, by contrast, was always a Paul Simon record. Take away Simon’s cosmopolitan backing band and you’re a stone’s throw from “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard”. Nor have the other major “Africa” records made by American artists in the intervening years — a short list includes Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Corey Harris, Steve Reid, Pharaoh Sanders, and Dee Dee Bridgewater — displayed the breadth of African music evident on Throw Down Your Heart. Over 18 tracks, Fleck manages to navigate more than a dozen distinct musical styles. His itinerary includes the Gambia and Mali in the West, and Tanzania and Uganda more than 3,000 miles further East.

Several of the recordings capture spontaneous backyard jam sessions with village musicians. Other tracks pair him with the royalty of African music, and Fleck’s stringwork shows itself equal to the blistering tempos of a Malian kora master such as Toumani Diabate. Fleck’s title composition and his simple backing of Oumou Sangare on “Djorolen” are haunting pieces that suggest some of the interior terrain that Fleck traverses on this journey. The closing track, “Dunia Heina Wema/Thumb Fun”, is a musical dialogue with a thumb piano that deserves to replace “Dueling Banjos” as an iconic banjo showpiece. The album is a tour de force accompanying one of the most unlikely tours in recent musical history.

How does someone with only a casual acquaintance to so much African music manage to sound so brilliant playing it? Many would say that it’s the work of one of the world’s great musicians. Although Fleck is in a class all his own when it comes to the mastery of his instrument and the diversity of his musical appetite, there’s something deeper at work here. It’s not just the banjo: it’s the music he’s bringing that’s fundamentally similar to the African context. To understand the connection, it helps to trace the rest of the circle the banjo travels to get to this point. It’s a wide arc, and the story is often uncomfortable. If there’s a common theme at each point, it’s of musicians taking the instrument from where they found it and making it their own.

The journey starts in West Africa, where it was common to find musicians plucking a variety of instruments consisting of strings suspended across a skin-covered gourd. We don’t know exactly what the music sounded like, but we assume it’s not too far removed from how traditional music using these instruments sounds now. It’s most often based on a dense cycle of repeated notes, over which musicians perform elaborate improvisations. There’s call-and-response singing between a musical leader and other singers. Polyrhythm — having multiple, interlocked rhythms happening at the same time — was common. As musicians were captured, sold into slavery, and transported across the Atlantic, one of their instruments would occasionally make the trip with them. More often, slaves made new instruments using local materials when they arrived in the New World.

The banjo enters recorded history in the 1830’s in the hands of a white performer named Joel Sweeney, who learned a variation of the instrument from slaves in central Virginia. He achieves fame as the central musician in the country’s first touring blackface minstrel show. Some facets of the banjo are certainly African — the string arrangement and strumming style aren’t found in Western music. Other features are Sweeney’s own — he adds a string to the instrument and replaces the gourd body with a wooden frame.

What’s least African about it is the music itself. Instead, the song structure mirrors British and Celtic folk music. A composed melody drives the tune, which builds and resolves in linear time. There are chord changes. None of this is generally thought to be Sweeney’s innovation, but rather the product of the enforced culture of the plantation, where African traditional music was forbidden and slaves would do what they could with whatever music was at hand. Although Sweeney may have embellished the form for the concert hall, it’s likely that the kinds of songs he was playing weren’t far from what he was hearing. So the banjo music that explodes across pre-Civil War America was songs by a White performer imitating African-Americans imitating White folk music.

Fast forward to 1946, when a banjo prodigy named Earl Scruggs takes the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. Scruggs’s instrument is recognizable as the instrument Sweeney popularized over a hundred years earlier, with a few tweaks that now give it a characteristic clear ring. Scruggs replaces the traditional strumming style with a tidal wave of notes. He plays a turbocharged version of the country music of his day, which comes to define the sound of the instrument as completely as Sweeney’s style did in the 1830’s. There’s nothing recognizably African about Scruggs’s playing, and yet implicit in his style is an inadvertent nod back in the direction of Africa: polyrhythm.

It starts with a simple puzzle — how do you get three fingers to play a series of eight notes? In the course of any song, Scruggs answers the question in different ways, but commonly it’s two sets of three and a set of two. In order to make it work, the banjo player’s fingers must hold a rhythm that’s distinct from what the rest of the band is playing. To the audience and even the other band members, it just sounds like a steady stream of notes, but the banjo player is hearing both rhythms at the same time.

Béla Fleck is not the first musician obsessed with adapting Scruggs’s bluegrass style to play jazz, but he is the one who took it the furthest. One of the trademarks of his style is to make the shifting rhythms the focus of the music. Why just keep putting three into eight? Why not seven or eleven? Or what about four into fourteen? Fleck’s brand of space-age “Newgrass” found a small but devoted following. Not content to stay in his own idiom, he’s put his banjo to masterful use in classical music, gypsy folk, bebop, and just about any other style of music he could get his hands on. Going to Africa was just the next step in his odyssey to expand the horizon of the instrument.

Much of what he recorded in Africa were jam sessions. He was playing with musicians in different styles for the first and only time, and with little advance preparation. For any musician, regardless of style, being able to show up, play, and sound good in somebody else’s music generally requires strong familiarity with the form, which Fleck didn’t have on his five-week excursion. What he did have was polyrhythm, and as a result, he was able to play their songs, with confidence.

The track “Ajula/Mbamba” is an example. Here, Fleck is playing traditional songs with the Jatta family in the Gambia, and the banjo is paired with its closest African relative, the akonting. The first tune carries a consistent, galloping rhythm with the akonting, banjo, singers, and shaker all following together. When the song shifts, the akonting zooms off with a complex rhythm all its own. The shaker maintains a straight 3-beat pattern, which feels only tangentially connected to what the akonting is playing. While the singers follow the shaker, the banjo gives chase to the akonting, and the strings together play through a cycle that alternates 3-beat and 2-beat patterns, including one stretch that seems to defy any easy rhythm. When Fleck solos, he switches gears to match the 3-beat shaker pattern, then ends by rejoining the stutter-step trot of the akonting without missing a beat.

Sound confusing? It is. That’s when it helps to be one of the world’s great musicians.

Circle 2 — The American musical imagination returns to Africa, like it’s never been there before

That an American musician would make a trip to Africa is not in itself remarkable — touring musicians are among the most traveled people on the planet. That such a trip is seen by the rest of us as a major cultural event is curious. That it still feels novel a quarter-century after the recording that became the template for American-African collaboration points to an underlying issue in the American understanding of Africa. Americans have a collective case of Alzheimers when it comes to Africa, forgetting any detail or event related to the continent shortly after we’re told.

The problem is not that we don’t have a stake in understanding Africa. If the archaeologists are right, we’re all originally from there. 12% of the U.S. population identifies explicitly as African-American. Nearly every significant American musical form traces part of its lineage to Africa. American troops were on the ground in Somalia in the not-so-distant past. The population of the continent approaches the size of China or India. And yet popular knowledge of Africa seems substantially less than our already-abysmal global literacy. Even for supposedly educated Americans, Africa continues to be regarded as a single entity, an undifferentiated mass. It registers on the evening news with a more extreme version of the same sort of stories reported about the American inner city: murders, government corruption, civil unrest, and the occasional charitable organization trying to stop the bleeding. Despite the undoing of some of the most offensive stereotypes, most Americans’ vision of Africa is still a portrait painted by a caricature artist

Africa is the place where America confronts the limit of its morality. It’s where we’ve got a centuries-long legacy of alienating the supposedly inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through the practice of slavery. Recently, it’s where we’ve allowed genocide to happen. Twice. Any real understanding of Africa brings us quickly to the knowledge of our own complicity in, or at least indifference to, despicable acts. Rather than acknowledge this, we ignore it. We’re all too willing to throw anything to do with Africa down the memory hole.

A simple telling of the story of the banjo leads straight into this uncomfortable territory — of slaves not only being separated physically from their homeland, but denied their own music; of the banjo’s use as an instrument by white performers in blackface to sing songs about the virtues of slave life; of African-American musicians ultimately shunning the most African of American instruments because of the racist stigma that became attached to it.

And so the full story gets covered up. Going to folk festivals around the country, you’d think traditional banjo songs rose up like mountain mist out of the people of rural Appalachia instead of off the stages of the minstrel show. So there’s a courage in Fleck’s playing the banjo in Africa alongside the akonting — deliberately pointing and saying “Hey, this is where the story starts.”

Béla Fleck is remarkable in his willingness to deal openly with the shadow side of the American-African relationship. The places he chooses to visit in West Africa were some of the most intimately connected to the transatlantic slave trade, while the sites in East Africa included slave transit points to the East. The title of the album and the film is a reference to the Tanzanian port city of Bagamoyo. Historically, that city was a final stop for prisoners to be sold abroad as slaves. The translation of Bagomoyo, “Throw Down Your Heart”, is said to refer to the grief related to the slaves’ realization that they would never see their home again.

Both Béla Fleck and Paul Simon before him show a profound ability to enter into the grief of the people they visited. They didn’t stop there, as you can tell from passages on both albums shot through with sheer joy. Part of what makes music a useful portal into another culture is that it brings the full humanity of a people into focus. It can guide us into uncomfortable places and bring us out the other side. Graceland subtly but powerfully helped bring the anti-Apartheid struggle to mass consciousness. In the process, Paul Simon helped differentiate South Africa in the American mind — we understood how it sounded. If Béla Fleck can connect our perception of the Gambia with the Jatta Family, or Mali with Oumou Sangare in the same way Simon made South Africa synonymous with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he will have served a powerful purpose.

Circle 3 — America returns to the world community, and a door re-opens

Graceland was neither the first nor the last album that made the journey to Africa and back, but it landed at a moment that America was hungry for it. The Cold War was showing the first hints of a thaw, and a global divestment movement was beginning to crack the foundations of Apartheid in South Africa. The tectonic plates of global politics were rumbling, and the hope of a new internationalism began to quicken. Graceland was the musical manifestation of that hope. It painted a picture of a post-Apartheid world — not only did White and Black coexist: they harmonized. Simon opened a perceptual door, and through it revealed a vision that was compelling to the point of becoming inevitable. Graceland may have been the name of Elvis’s estate, but it resonated as a musical-political state of grace that grew from an embrace wide enough to encircle the globe. “I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” Who wouldn’t want to go there?

From 1986-1990 music changed and the world changed. Musicians increasingly looked toward the synapse that connected the two, intent on finding ways to make it fire. Looking back, the artistic and political foment of this period was staggering. The Berlin Wall fell, Nelson Mandela walked free, and pundits talked about “The End of History”. Peter Gabriel and David Byrne both started world music labels, along with releasing albums that featured their own global collaborations. The three bands that would become synonymous with human rights activism for the next 20 years — U2, R.E.M., and the Beastie Boys — each released their breakout albums in this period. In rap, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions turned records into mass teach-ins.

The door slammed shut in early 1991 when the U.S. invaded Iraq — the first time. What President George H. W. Bush invoked as the “New World Order” was revealed to be an era of unchecked American military force abroad, initiated with the largest U. S. military offensive since the Vietnam War. Hope gave way to cynicism, an outward focus to a self-absorbed one. Nihilism was stamped on the coin of the early 1990’s, with Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in 1991 and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” released a year later. Grunge and gangsta rap were the expressions of a dream deferred, while “world music” retreated to the back of the record store.

In 2009, the door is open again thanks to a Kenyan-American president who is determined that America needs to join the global reunion. Béla Fleck teaches us something about how to walk through it gracefully: accept the cognitive dissonance of holding multiple rhythms at the same time, confront the ugly truths of the past and allow them to set you free, and believe that a jam session can still provide a blueprint for a better world.

Jeff Pinzino is the author of the Casual Listening blog at casuallistening.blogspot.com.