Album Review: Béla Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (Rounder)


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MP3: Béla Fleck – Djorolen (with Oumou Sangaré)

This is a special album, the likes of which you won’t get to experience many times in a cloistered, Western musical experience.

A little bit of backstory: Béla Fleck, everyone’s favorite (or least favorite, depending on your tastes and outlook) virtuoso instrumentalist takes a bit of a soul-searching journey. Fleck undertook Throw Down Your Heart, a project to create a movie about his travels and explorations through Africa, searching out the origins of his musical love: the banjo, and making some great music along the way. It is perhaps a little known fact that the banjo’s origins lay in Earth’s oldest inhabited territory, rather than in its more commonly known trappings as a staple of Appalachian and rural American music.

Fleck’s experience turned out to be richly rewarding both personally and professionally. It allowed Fleck a chance to forge a more lasting connection with his younger half-brother Sascha Paladino (the director), and truly understand the nature of the banjo: that its sound and power derives from, and is reflective of, the experiences of its creators, African slaves. The trip also yielded this fantastic album, a joyous slice of Africa courtesy of Fleck’s musical passion.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment for this album, and the most important to Fleck’s soujourn, is that it achieves the proper balance between musicians from the many countries Fleck visits (The Gambia, Mali, Uganda, South Africa, Madagascar), and Fleck’s own not-so-inconsiderable talents. With any virtuoso player, there is always the risk of their playing overshadowing all other pieces of an album. Wisely, the focus is kept squarely on the African musicians, while Fleck does what any respecting musician would do: he blends in, enhancing the compositions of his newfound collaborators. This effortless blending of musical language is precisely what makes this album so telling and so wondrous. Here, there is no cliche in treating music as universal language, it is clearly fact. Each composition is refreshingly original and often deeply intimate.

Fleck had already begun writing title track “Throw Down Your Heart” before he had set foot on the ancient continent.  The phrase comes from the translation of the town named Bagamoyo, a Tanzanian town that lies on the eastern coast of Africa, where slaves were shipped in potentially greater number to the east than the west for sale in the Middle East.  When slaves were brought to the shore here, looking over the Indian Ocean, it is said they realized they would never see their homes again.  So they “threw down their hearts.”  Listening to the track, you can hear in the proud yet forlorn sounds that Fleck already understood much of the cultural context and distress behind his instrument and its rich sound, and you suspect he’ll have no problem fitting right in with everyone he meets.

Moving and assertive vocals form the center to the opening track, “Tulinesangala,” where Fleck’s relatively sparse banjo provides ample space for, and sounds brittle juxtaposed to Uganda’s Nakisenyi Women’s Group.  Anania Ngoliga, a blind virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, lets loose vocal acrobatics on “Kabibi” that are dizzying: a flurry of notes rivaling Fleck’s banjo in dexterity and range, and radiating an effervescent, carefree humor.  Similarly, “Mariam” sees Fleck meeting his musical equal in the ferocious, masterful guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.

Fleck handily connects with another guitarist (Madagascan D’Gary), their dueling strings pirouetting like Kirov dancers on “Kinetsa.” Together with an all-star cast on “D’Gary Jam,” they create an enthralling Afro-jazz stew, managing to house a stunning diversity of regional sounds and styles in one seamless track that feels atmospheric, at times approaching ethereality.  The jam also happens to feature the force of nature that is Toumani Diabaté’s kora.  ”Angelina” sounds like pure, unadulterated celebration, like an entire village in Mali (or at least the co-credited Luo Cultural Association) threw Fleck a welcoming party that culminated in a giant, exhausting jam session.  ”Ajula / Mbambia” comes closest to Fleck’s mission statement as he plays in The Gambia with the Jatta family who specialize in the ancestral banjo, the akonting.

Standing back from the whole, you hear a clear difference between the Malinese compositions from everything else.  The diverse and progressive nature of the music encompassing both traditional and modern elements (“Mariam,” “Ah Ndiya”), the cross-cultural superstars of the highly-developed music scene like  Diabaté and Oumou Sangaré (a prominent voice in the Wassoulou genre that gained traction in early 90′s Mali).  ”Djorolen” is jaw-droppingly gorgeous with Sangaré’s intimate vocals duetting perfectly with Fleck’s delicate picking, and possibly the standout track on the record.

There is such a vast range of styles and sounds on display here that I’m positive everyone can find something to love. Not only is this Fleck’s most listenable release, but perhaps the best, and certainly the most ambitious (and one of my favorites of the year).

Label: Rounder Records

Release date: Mar 03 2009

Track list:

  1. Tulinesangala – Bela Fleck with Nakisenyi Women”s Group
  2. Kinetsa – Bela Fleck with D’Gary
  3. Ah Ndiya – Bela Fleck with Oumou Sangare
  4. Kabibi – Bela Fleck with Anania Ngoglia
  5. Angelina – Bela Fleck with Luo Cultural Association
  6. D’Gary Jam – Bela Fleck with D’Gary, Oumou Sangare and friends
  7. Throw Down Your Heart – Bela Fleck with Haruna Samake Trio and Bassekou Kouate
  8. Thula Mama – Bela Fleck with Vusi Mahlesela
  9. Wairenziante – Bela Fleck with Muwewesu Xylophone Group
  10. Buribalal – Bela Fleck with Afel Bocum
  11. Zawose – Bela Fleck with Chibite – The Zawose Family
  12. Ajula/Mbamba – Bela Fleck with The Jatta Family
  13. Pakugyenda Balebauo – Bela Fleck with Warema Masiaga Cha Cha
  14. Jesus Is the Only Answer – Bela Fleck with Ateso Jazz Band
  15. Matitu – Bela Fleck with Khalifan Matitu and Fadhili Bbata
  16. Mariam – Bela Fleck with Djelimady Tounkara and Alou Coulibazy
  17. Djorolen – Bela Fleck with Oumou Sangare
  18. Dunia Haina Wema/Thumb Fun – Bela Fleck with Anania Ngoglia

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