Mother Africa is the cradle of our species. She has also given birth to so much of our music that we sometimes lose our ear for its origins. "I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from because it is so much associated with a white Southern stereotype," says Bela Fleck, the world's primo virtuoso of this instrument. In "Throw Down Your Heart", he documents his six-week sojourn to Africa to discover whether the modern banjo still has a vibrant voice in the land where it was born.
The banjo is a descendant of an instrument that African slaves brought to the New World in the 16th century. It sat in the laps of musicians in cane and cotton fields, in plantation shacks and sheds, atop the levees and bales of raw goods that stood along the rivers that brought the blues to the bustling gulf ports.
By the early 19th century, the banjo was an essential element in plantation cakewalks and white minstrelsy. It accompanied sailors in their sea chanteys and traveled west with hopeful miners toward the Gold Rush. After the Civil War, the presentation banjo was adopted as a parlor instrument alongside the player piano. In the early 20th century, it sang in the ragtime orchestra and the Dixieland band. By the 1930s, the banjo had disappeared from the jazz ensemble, though it continued to flourish in folk music and in the jigs and reels of barn dances in the Appalachian states that reached a national audience through radio broadcasts. In the mid-1940s, the banjo burst forth as an instrument of arresting brilliance when it was featured in bluegrass music.
In the four countries on his itinerary, Bela Fleck steers clear of big cities and large venues. He, along with sound engineer Dave Sinko and director Sascha Paladino's filmmaking crew, head for the bush and the villages "to play with great African musicians and find a role for the banjo in their music."
In each of the stops, Bela connects with a musician to serve as host and translator and to introduce the party to locals and their particular instruments and tradition. He emphasizes that he has no wish to be front and center among the players, but prefers to take a seat on the backbench. In every group setting, he adds his banjo's voice as if he were politely joining a conversation already in progress.
The first destination is Uganda. The filmmakers stage a boisterous audition in Jinja to recruit musicians familiar with the local music. From there, the party travels to the village of Nakisenyi. In nearby Lwanika, Bela meets his first guide, Walusimbi Haruna, a professional musician whose specialty is the thumb piano. "Music is in every aspect of life," Haruna explains. The visit includes a stop at the grave of Haruna's late father, where burial customs in Africa and America are compared. In a touching moment, Bela is visibly caught off guard when Haruna is overcome with grief as they play a song about his father.
The thumb piano is culturally regarded as a man's instrument, but Jinja's prodigy, it turns out, is Ruth Akello, a woman who sings like an angel and plays like a "wizard." Nakisenyi possesses an enormous marimba, a communal instrument played by many people at once that sounds "like a rock band."
The filmmakers depart Nakisenyi with sadness. Dabbing at tears, Bela notes, "I felt truly welcomed."
The second destination gives the film its name. "Bagamoyo", in Tanzania, means "throw down your heart." Bagamoyo was a seaside collection point for the transport of slaves. Unfortunate captives knew that when they glimpsed the sea they should throw down their hearts because they would never see their homes again.
The Tanzanian guide is John Kitime. Bela had hoped he might meet Hukwe Zawose, the legend of traditional Gogo music, but is disappointed to learn that Zawose had died a few years earlier. He is delighted to find blind vocalist and thumb pianist Anania Ngoliga alive and well. The two compose and record seamless inventions from their very first session.
At a brief stopover in Dar Es Salaam, Bela becomes acquainted with determinedly tribal young Masai, who are pleased to demonstrate their traditional forms of dance.
The travelers cross the continent for their third destination, the Gambia, believed to the birthplace of the banjo. Sniffing the Gambian air, Bela quips, "I can smell banjo."
Jil Ekona Jatta is the Gambian guide. He introduces Bela to the akonting, a 3-string banjo ancestor. We see an akonting constructed as American banjos had been until the early 1800s: an animal skin is nailed to a hollowed calabash with a shaved hardwood pole run through it. After several days of drying in the sun, a carved bridge is glued to the head and strings of gut or hemp fiber are attached.
"It felt really natural playing with the musicians in Gambia," Bela reports. "It felt like the banjo was supposed to be there."
The fourth and final stop is Bamako, Mali, the "crown jewel of the African music community." The hostess is Oumou Sangare, the great "songbird" of Mali's Wassulu music, who owns the hotel the filmmakers enjoy during their stay and who moves among adoring crowds with the regal grace of one born to the purple.
Bassekou Kouyate, the town griot ("keeper of customs") introduces Bela to guitar hero Djelimady Tounkara and Kamal ngoni master Harouna Samake.
As we listen to the handcrafted lutes, harps, flutes, whistles, shakers, and drums of contemporary Africans, we are hearing instruments designed to perpetuate continuity with the ancestral past as well as the throbbing heart of the present. Some of this very music comforted the enslaved people dragged away to the Americas.
Music of all cultures in every age evokes exuberance and despondency, celebration and rapture, discovery and contemplation. The modern banjo evolved to express the musical forms of our European-derived Western tradition with its machined instruments and tempered tuning systems. Does the banjo have a role in African music? Of course it does because the voice belongs to the player not the instrument. "I just want to make great music," says Bela Fleck, a man of endless imagination and expansive heart. His banjo voice is and always has been sublime. In every setting it is truly welcomed.