Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Family Reunions: Two Multimedia Projects See Africa as the Planet's Musical Heart and Soul

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Family Reunions: Two Multimedia Projects See Africa as the Planet's Musical Heart and Soul

Article excerpt


IN THE FILM Throw Down Your Heart, an African musician says, "There is this negative thinking about Africa. There is nothing good in Africa. They are beggars, there is HIV/AIDS, they are at war all the time. But that is just a very small bit of what Africa is."

True enough. Despite its troubles, Africa is, for one thing, the mother continent of all humanity--the roots and trunk of our great extended family tree. In addition, these two recent music video projects, Bela Flecks Throw Down Your Heart and Mark Johnson's Playing for Change, make a powerful case for Africa as the cornerstone of contemporary popular culture and the musical heart and soul of the planet.

Throw Down Your Heart documents a journey through Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali that began when banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck decided to take his instrument back to its roots. Those roots seem to be in West Africa, where a stringed instrument called the akonting is said to have departed on a slave ship from the Gambian port of Banjul. The idea for a trip to Africa began to form when Fleck "discovered where the banjo originally came from," he says. "I developed the suspicion that some of the greatest acoustic music on earth is hidden in the small villages in Africa."

And that's what he found. The film opens with a scene of Fleck playing banjo in an African village. After a while, he is joined by a fiddler, an African man bowing a one-stringed local version of a violin. Over this opening sequence, another of Flecks African musical partners remarks, "Bela Fleck wanted to take the banjo back to Africa and let it play with its old folks."

Fleck is an ideal candidate for closing this musical circle. A native New Yorker, he nonetheless was smitten with bluegrass and is based in Nashville with his band, The Flecktones. But over the years Fleck has strayed into jazz and other cross-genre collaborations. The CD of Throw Down Your Heart is presented by Rounder Records as the third installment in his series, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet."

The album makes for interesting listening. But this collaboration is best experienced through its feature-length DVD that allows you to see the players at home, and to see the instruments that make some of these incredible sounds. Most incredible is the giant marimba, seen in a Ugandan village, which is constructed over an enormous pit in the earth and hammered by an ensemble of men. The land-culture connection is no metaphor here.

The project's instrumental title track is one Fleck wrote during his African pilgrimage. In Tanzania he was told that the phrase "throw down your heart" is the literal translation of the name of the port town, Bagamoyo, where Arab slave traders shipped their cargo to the east. "Throwing down the heart" is what the Africans did when they saw the ocean and realized they would never go home. Here it is a sad, vaguely Celtic melody that is finally recorded during Flecks last stop in Mali in a dueling banjos session with Bassekou Kouyate on the ngoni, the banjo of Mali.

Gambia was where the banjo shipped out for America. And during Flecks Gambian visit, we see a man split a dried gourd, stretch an animal skin tight across it, and construct an akonting before our eyes. Later we see him play the instrument with the "clawhammer" attack that is familiar to any aficionado of Appalachian old-time music. …

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