Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Béla Fleck | Africa Project – Canopy Club, Urbana


By Jon Stone | @jwstone

grass|roots -- ep. 2

Since seeing Béla Fleck's Africa Project last Sunday night (at the Canopy Club in Urbana, IL), I've been thinking about what I might say here to communicate what a unique experience it was. I think it might be best if I do some showing instead of telling. Consider first this video, which shows the meeting of Fleck with Tanzanian musician Anania Ngoliga:

Now have a listen to N'goni Ba, the seven-piece group from Mali (pictured above):

These are the musicians who accompanied Béla Fleck on Sunday night. Anania played his ilimba or "thumb piano" -- something I had only seen five-note versions of in the past -- and N'goni Ba's Bassekou Kouyate is a master of the West African lute or n'goni. The n'goni is a seven-string instrument that is thousands of years old and thought to be an ancestor of the American banjo (though how the n'goni can have more than three strings is beyond me: the neck is the diameter of a small broom handle!).

Fleck is an undisputed banjo master. He's an innovator and his work transcends genre. He's bound to show up again and again in this series. He's won thirteen Grammy awards for his work, most often with the Flecktones, but also for various other projects. And just a few weeks ago, his "Africa Sessions" received two. He's gone beyond mere progressive virtuosity here. With this Africa project he's making some important arguments, acknowledging gracefully but forcefully that American folk history is not just American. Our roots extend into Africa and beyond. He knows from his experience in bluegrass and jazz that music can be a key to understanding culture. It unlocks hidden doors and grants access to the hearts of people in ways that other intellectual explorations cannot -- which might have something to do with the title of the project. It's called Throw Down Your Heart (The flash homepage linked here is astounding. Spend some time there exploring the project's variety of places and contributors.)

The show was amazing. Fleck graced us with a few solo numbers, but his priority was clearly to shine a spotlight on each of his collaborators. He demonstrated how the kind of musical conversation begun in the video I shared above can evolve to become beautiful show pieces. These collaborations are meant, I think, to celebrate the unmistakable similarities in our cultural musical traditions by bringing them, at last, to our attention. In fact, I love that Throw Down Your Heart somewhat undermines  some of definitions I tried to flesh out in my first grass|roots post last week (right out of the gate in episode 2!). In describing his idea behind the project Béla says: "I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from . . .  it's been associated so much with a white-southern stereotype that most people don't realize it's an African instrument."  By finding a role for the banjo in African music (rather than the other way around) Fleck finds a way to not just celebrate but venerate African music and musicians.  Indeed, with Throw Down Your Heart Béla Fleck helps to correct our notions of what is meant when we talk about roots music.

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