Sunday, March 8, 2009

Béla Fleck documentary tunes up banjo's image

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Béla Fleck, a New Yorker by birth and a banjo player by choice, has always been aware of the stereotypes. It's one reason he adapted the banjo to almost every musical genre imaginable, including classical, jazz, bluegrass, pop, country and folk. Fleck has won 10 Grammys (and been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other musician in history), so he's the ideal person to make a documentary about the history of the instrument - a history that leads to slavery and Africa, where Fleck traveled for five weeks with a film and recording crew.

"Throw Down Your Heart," which opens Friday at the Roxie Theater, is an eye-opener. Fleck plays with musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and Mali, often performing in public squares where children gather to witness the strange and beautiful instrument he's brought from America. In turn, Fleck is awestruck by their presence and the acoustic instruments he gets to accompany, including a 12-foot xylophone, a three-string lute called the akonting (which is a likely antecedent of the banjo) and palm-size pianos called mbiras.

"It's the coolest thing I've ever gotten to do," Fleck says in a phone interview. "It was the greatest adventure of my life."

The adventure wasn't without hitches - the biggest occurring when Fleck's record company pulled its sponsorship just weeks before Fleck and his crew were set to depart from the United States. Fleck ended up funding the trip himself, spending $100,000 for the cost of flying to and around Africa, filming, recording the performances for an album, and paying the singers and musicians he played with.

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