Banjo pickin’ in Africa

Eccentric musician Bela Fleck (far right) has a jam session with musicians in an African village in his musical documentary Throw Down Your Heart.

Through Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali, American banjo player Bela Fleck’s quest is simple: “bring the banjo back to Africa.”

Meeting local musicians and villagers along the way, director Sascha Paladino’s documentary follows Fleck as he plays his music in community settings.

For each community he visits, Paladino constructs short scenes with stories representative of the place, giving it a uniquely personal feel.

The director’s use of close-ups during the unpredictable musical experimentation’s emphasizes the impressive ability of the musicians present, as they passionately play their songs and become one with the music.

Featuring group sing-alongs, the musicians display their skill on homemade instruments or simply clap a few pieces of wood together to keep in beat.

Percussion, woodwind and string instruments are all practiced with amazing energy.

Even the thumb piano makes an appearance during one musical session.

This is a side of Africa that we do not often see from the North American perspective. Throw Down Your Heart shows how folk music fits into the African lifestyle.

Paladino delights in highlighting the fascinating contrast between the African villages in Uganda that Fleck visits compared to the air-conditioned hotels he stays at in Mali.

Walusimbi Nsimbambi Haruna, a local that Fleck meets in Uganda, demonstrates the cultural differences between North America and Africa as he introduces Fleck to his family.

It is this which Fleck is interested in: searching for the real roots of the banjo and being re-connected with the basics in life.

Fleck is taught about African history between making music with the people that he meets.

Through his journey, we learn about tribal traditions and the instruments the locals use, such as the akonting (a relative of the banjo).

This back-to-nature experience both energizes and relaxes the viewer; the rhythm could equally inspire dancing or lull the viewer to sleep.

In Throw Down Your Heart, music offers freedom and release; a way to forget about the hardships of daily life.

Fleck clearly loves this music and wants to share his knowledge and learn from others.

Perhaps that is why he collaborates so well with the African musicians: their mutual passion for music is a bond that crosses the boundaries of social and lifestyle differences.

At the beginning of the film, Fleck is asked in a radio interview what the one thing is that he would like to accomplish with this trip. “I just want to make great music,” he says.

With his eagerness to take risks working with the musicians he meets, it would appear his mission was a success.

Published in Volume 64, Number 25 of The Uniter (April 1, 2010)

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