Judge Gordon Sullivan just got his Sears and Roebuck banjo.
Béla Fleck Brings the Banjo Back to Africa
If only Sears and Roebuck had made cheap, mail-order banjos as popular as their cheap, mail-order guitars, we might see kids flocking to play the latest release of Banjo Hero instead of Guitar Hero. It's not so far-fetched an idea. Both instruments have strong roots in American folk music, and at the dawn of the Twentieth century, the future supremacy could have gone either way. However, thanks to a number of factors (including cheaper mail-order guitars and advances in manufacturing and amplification technologies, not to mention changes in musical styles), the guitar went on to be the premier instrument for folk and popular music, at least in the Twentieth century. This left the banjo an odd relic, kept alive by a number of talented musicians, but mostly relegated to the status of joke: "Paddle faster, I hear banjo music."
Even though it's a joke to many, the banjo is a demanding instrument with deep roots that stretch all the way back to traditional African instruments made from gourds and string. Luckily, this noble instrument has survived thanks to a crop of talented players, many in the bluegrass field. Among those names, one stands pretty prominent in most people's eyes: Béla Fleck. He's won numerous Grammys, played with some of the greatest musicians in America, and long provided a cultured face for banjo players to look up to. So when he decided to go to Africa to record with African musicians, it was a sufficiently momentous occasion that a camera crew got involved to document his journey to four African regions (Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali). While on this journey, Béla absorbs the native music (and its instruments) while also trying to find a place for his modern banjo.
Before I talk more about the movie, I want to pause briefly to talk about Béla Fleck as a musician. Before I saw Throw Down Your Heart, I was familiar with his work with the Flecktones and had even seen him live. Although many people notice his technical mastery of the banjo (which I will admit is ridiculously impressive), the thing that continues to draw me to his music is Béla's impressive spirit. He has spent most of his career seeking opportunities to play with musicians who are as good, if not better, than he is, not to show his mastery of the banjo, but to support them in making good music. The overriding feeling I got watching him play live was humility and generosity of spirit.
I mention all this because if most people said they were going to "take the banjo back to Africa," I would immediately be skeptical, thinking the person had some kind of white-messiah complex. With Béla, it's different. I knew going in that he would have the intelligence, generosity of spirit, and ability to listen that would make the experience about exchanging culture, not showing how the modern banjo looks so advanced compare to the gourd instruments. Throw Down Your Heart proved me right. Just about every scene features Béla interacting with native musicians, and he's always listening, whether he's playing, they're playing, or both. We watch as he's thrust into new situations, with musicians who don't speak English, with tunes that have odd time signatures or strange melodies, and we watch him adapt and contribute. Amazingly, though, it's never about him. It's hard to believe a white man could blend in amongst the African natives, but he manages, letting his banjo weave in and out of their tunes without ever trying to take them over. It's an impressive display of musicianship by all involved.
Director Sascha Paladino (who is Béla's brother) mirrors Béla's generosity of spirit in the filming of Throw Down Your Heart. Rather than trying to impose a narrative onto the material, orchestrating the journey to have some climax or to generate some conflict, Paladino just lets Béla's trip play out as it does. As such, there's not much of a "story" to the film. We watch the group go from place to place in Africa, here some of the history of individual musicians, and most importantly see lots of performances, both with and without the banjo. Because there is no "story," the film plays out more like a dialogue, with Béla talking to the musicians, and Paladino giving many of the musicians a chance to talk back, to discuss their music and its relationship to their heritage.
If I have one complaint about the film, it's that I would have liked more of a focus on the musicology behind the banjo and its origins. Very little is said about the history of the banjo in the film, and viewers unfamiliar with the way the instrument migrated thanks to the slave trade might be a little bit lost. Also, while I love watching the interaction between the musicians, some commentary from historians, either of the instruments or the music, would have been occasionally helpful to put the entire journey in context. I guess we can hope for a sequel.
As a DVD package, Throw Down Your Heart is up to Docurama's usually high standards. It was shot on video for the most part, without the benefit of lots of lighting equipment, so the source isn't always the cleanest. However, the video transfer looks faithful to what was captured, warts and all. In fact, the slightly gritty feel of much of the video actually helps the atmosphere of the film. The 5.1 soundtrack is great for the most part, and I don't envy the sound engineer who had to contend with loud instruments in bustling villages and huts. For the most part the dynamics are fine, with audible dialogue and clear music. Occasionally all the instruments hit what sounds like a resonant frequency that made me reach for the volume knob, but music fans will certainly enjoy the mix.
Extras start out with an audio commentary by Fleck and Paladino. The two are comfortable with each other and share a low-key track filled with production info, some discussion of behind-the-scenes difficulties, as well as the beautiful experiences of recording in Africa. The meat of the supplements, though, are the hour-plus collection of bonus scenes and musical performances. All the musicians involved in the film are terribly talented, and it's a treat to get to see more of them.
Throw Down Your Heart will obviously appeal to fans of both the banjo and African music, but as a documentary it has a lot to teach us about the universality of music and the ways that it can cross seemingly insurmountable differences to bring people together. Some people might miss the traditional "story" this lacks, but for those willing to get past that the film has tremendous musical performances and an emotional center that beats as loud as the traditional Ugandan marimba.
Throw Down Your Heart is not guilty.
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