Béla Fleck Explores the Banjo’s Roots: African Tour Yields Forthcoming CD and Film

Music Features Bela Fleck
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Amidst the acacia trees and thatched-roof huts of a small Ugandan village, Béla Fleck sits on the ground, trademark banjo temporarily loaned out. A crowd looks on, chatting in a Swahili dialect as a grinning village elder plucks a tune. For Fleck, whose fingers navigate the gut strings of a small wooden harp, the sense of experimenting alongside a musical peer is familiar. The setting, however, is decidedly foreign.

But foreign territory is nothing new for Fleck—stylistically, he’s been taking the banjo there for years. In fact, the iconic picker has spent so much of his career evicting the banjo from its Appalachian niche, it’s ironic that his latest project finds him delving deeper into the instrument’s heritage than any of his traditionalist peers. After all, strumming a five-string at the Opry is old school, but picking with an ennanga harpist in the African interior is another thing altogether.

“I’ve always been really interested in music from around the world,” Fleck explains, “and Africa has been a place I have never really gotten to explore—and [it’s] the place the banjo comes from.”

With his full-time band, the Flecktones on a 2005 hiatus, the genre-bending virtuoso decided to pursue a long-envisioned African banjo safari. He enlisted the help of brother/filmmaker Sascha Paladino and field producer/East African cultural tour guide Nichole Smaglick. Following months of musical and logistical preparation, the three set out last February with a small crew, a collection of mobile video- and audio-recording equipment, and a plan to document six weeks of Fleck jamming alongside local African musicians on both sides of the continent.

“I wasn’t really looking for people who were well known,” says Fleck. “What I was after [was] more of a discovery … finding musicians that nobody knew and bringing their music out to the world.”

Fleck’s musical collaborators reflected the continent’s diversity, ranging from dancing, painted Masai warriors in Uganda to a refined Malian vocal diva. In Tanzania, he traded licks with a charismatic, blind thumb-pianist, described by Smaglick as “an East African Ray Charles.” Fleck also sought the opportunity to play on and alongside the Gambian akonting—thought to be the banjo’s closest African relative—and more distant cousins the ngoni and ennanga harps.

‘Worldly’ Music
From bluegrass to jazz and classical, Fleck’s 30-year career has spanned a musical landscape as wide as the Serengeti. But introducing the brassy twang of the five-string to the earthy tones and complex rhythms of indigenous African music presented unique challenges.

“I thought bluegrass was going to wig them out,” he says, chuckling. “I thought they were going to go crazy. But in general they were much more impressed when their musician would teach me something and I would play it back. A lot of times I didn’t know where the downbeat was. So I decided to stop worrying about that and just play.”

The recording crew improvised in a similar manner, digging pits for the mics beneath 12-foot xylophones, hanging overheads in nearby trees, and navigating throngs of curious onlookers as local guides led from one village to another.

Months later, during a rare break from his three touring side projects, Fleck still recounts the trip with an anthropologist’s attention to detail. Encyclopedic musical knowledge and years of extensive touring have made the banjo player worldly—but don’t call this “world music.” “I don’t know what that means,” Fleck shrugs. “When I’m in Africa, I’m world music. If a Spanish group comes to America, then they’re a world-music group, but in Spain, they’re not. It just depends where you are in the world.”

With an album of the African sessions slated for release in late 2006, and the film currently seeking distribution, Fleck and cohorts now face the daunting task of editing some 200 hours of material. The banjoist’s attitude, however, remains sunny as a Sahara sky. “What we came back with is exactly what we were hoping for, and we were presumptuous to think we would get it—but we did.”

The only minor casualty? Fleck’s near-priceless, painstakingly transported 1930s Gibson Mastertone’s finish began flaking in the equatorial heat. This, he says with forced calm, was “a little upsetting,” but he justifies the damage as an inevitable battle scar. Perhaps. Or maybe some part of that banjo wanted to remain at home.