The bond between a musician and his instrument is a mystical one. Without him the instrument is mute; without the instrument, the musician's soul is voiceless.
This is a story of how Bela Fleck, America's most celebrated banjoist, went on a quest in search of his musical soul mate's African roots -- and wound up discovering himself.
Somehow, Fleck seems an unlikely partisan of the banjo, an instrument that, like the mountain dulcimer, is inextricably linked to indigenous American folk music. Fleck wasn't raised in the Appalachian highlands, nor in the Kentucky bluegrass country. Instead, he was born in New York City in 1958 and the first banjo he ever heard was the one bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs played as part of the theme music for the original "Beverly Hillbillies" TV series.
Fleck took up the banjo and, even though he went on to study French horn at New York's famous High School of the Performing Arts, he found his own voice in the resonant strings of what's usually regarded as a very traditional instrument -- or at least it was until Fleck took it up. Though he went on to a successful career playing folk and bluegrass festivals and recording with the instrument's greatest masters, Fleck carried the banjo into the jazz and pop fields with equally spectacular success -- including a bushel of Grammy Awards.
Fleck had his own eclectic and highly successful group, the Flecktones. When they decided to take some time off, Fleck had a project in mind, one that ultimately would result in a moving documentary film -- "Throw Down Your Heart," directed by his half-brother Sascha Paladino -- and a stunning soundtrack, just released. (The movie, which traces the history of the banjo back to its African roots and includes interviews with numerous, mostly African, musicians, opens in San Francisco and Berkeley on March 13. It will roll out in New York on April 24 and then in Los Angeles in May.)
Developing a vision
The idea for the project had been with Fleck for so long, he said, he's not exactly sure when it started.
"It must have been around the time when I first learned that the banjo came from Africa," he said. "I was surprised that most people didn't know that. It seemed like an important thing to know."
He started listening to musicologists' field recordings of the "tantalizingly beautiful music from Africa."
Suddenly, Fleck realized that part of his instrument's appeal was that its sound evoked both loss and resilience. That, more than anything else, was an expression of its African roots, he realized. It's an instrument born of the memories of captive people carried into tragic exile.
Fleck mentioned the idea of the documentary to Peter Gelb, who ran Sony Classical Records. Gelb urged Fleck to enlist the help of his brother, who had worked with Fleck on a short film, "Obstinate."
"I loved the idea of Sascha doing it," Fleck said.
A five-week shooting trip to Africa was arranged.
"Bela is 18 years older than me," said Paladino, a writer and producer for the Nickelodeon show "Ni Hao Kai-lan." "When I was born, he was moving out. We didn't get to spend much time together. Working together was, in a way, how we got to know each other. It was very cool."
Gelb's initial enthusiasm didn't survive a look at the proposed documentary's budget and, when Sony backed out, Fleck decided to finance the project himself.
That was four years ago, and he still recalls that "On our layover at the Amsterdam airport, I began to write [the tune] what would become 'Throw Down Your Heart.' "
Weeks of shooting and playing with African musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali followed. The brothers came home with more than 250 hours of film and more than 40 pieces of newly recorded music.
The title song continued to haunt Fleck's imagination throughout the process. "When we got to Tanzania," Fleck recalled, "we heard stories about the slaves first seeing the sea in Bagamoyo. We were told that slaves were transported east in much greater numbers than the slaves that went west to the Americas. When they saw the sea, they realized they would never see their homes again, and they 'threw down their hearts.' That is the translation for the name of the town of Bagamoyo."
It is one of history's tender turns of fate that those hearts were picked up so many years later by a gifted young boy watching television in a New York apartment. Nobody could have been more faithful in caring for them, which is why "Throw Down Your Heart" is not just a stunning documentary and soundtrack, but an important work of artistic memory and conscience.