Bela Fleck: Back to the origins of the banjo

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Limelight Magazine.

By GEORGE AUSTIN

Bela Fleck is known for his innovations with playing the banjo. But the Grammy Award winning musician wanted to go back to the origins of the instrument. So, in 2005, he traveled to Africa where he played with other musicians and bands, made a film, came back with ideas for an album and made some friends who he is bringing to America for a concert tour.

“I think it was the completing of the circle of the banjo,” Fleck said. “I was able to bring over the modern American banjo and introduce it to the African music of today.”

Fleck said his experiences in Africa were very exciting.

The African musicians who will be playing with Fleck on his current concert tour, include Vusi Mahlasula, Toumani Diabate, D’Gary, and Anania Ngoglia. They will come to the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, Mass., on April 11. Fleck said there will be a lot of improvisation in the concert. He said all of the African musicians will play individually, he will join them in their individual performances and then they will all play together at the end.

“The main job is going to be for me to learn their music,” Fleck said. “I’ve already played a few songs with them. Everybody plays in different keys and everyone plays in different disciplines, so it’s going to be exciting to see what we can come up with.”

Some of the members of the band come from Madagascar, South Africa and Tanzania. Fleck knew about some of the musicians in the band before he went to Africa and some of the other ones he met in villages in Africa.

When he went to the dark continent, Fleck went to different towns where he found musicians to play with.

“It was different from anything I’ve ever done because we grew up in different worlds,” Fleck said. “But it was exciting because there were some things we had in common with the rhythm and melodies from folk and bluegrass, so there was a natural bridge.”

When African musicians come to the United States, Fleck said they often play popular music from their continent with electric bass guitars and drums, but he said on his concert tour, audiences will be hearing traditional African music. He said he will be showcasing some of the beautiful instruments from Africa, such as the kora which is a West African harp, and a thumb piano.

“This is a much more intimate type of music, like folk or bluegrass,” Fleck said. “It will be almost like you’re in a living room and I’ll be playing with these people.”

In Fleck’s album, called “Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 3: Africa Sessions,” listeners will hear a variety of music, some of which are from musicians who are not coming over to the states for the current tour.

While he was in Africa, Fleck played with groups as large as 200 people and with vocal groups of 30 people. He said there were instruments he never heard of and a marimba that was played by 10 people. Fleck said his experiences in Africa have had a large impact on his music. When he came back, he was editing the film and working on an album, so he was listening to the music he played with other musicians there every day.

Fleck’s first album was with the Massachusetts based Rounder Records in the 1970s. He said it is difficult for a banjo player to get a record deal with a major label. He was able to land contracts with Warner Brothers and EMI. But he has since gone back to Rounder. While he says a lot of the people he dealt with at the major labels changed during the years, he said the same people he worked with at Rounder were still there when he decided to go back to that label, so he said it was “a homecoming,” of sorts for him. One of the things he likes about Rounder is the label keeps its records in print for many years. He said he wants people to be able to buy his records for years to come.

Fleck, who has won eight Grammy Awards and has been nominated for that honor more than anyone in history, is best known for his band the Flecktones. He has opened for Dave Matthews Band and the Grateful Dead.

The film of Fleck’s experiences in Africa has played at festivals and will be put in art theaters.

“The Beverly Hillbillies” is what first got Fleck interested in playing the banjo. He took up the instrument at 15 years old and has played pretty much every day since that time for the last 35 years. Fleck said he has tried to make the banjo a more flexible instrument to play in different musical genres.

“For me, I play the banjo more like it’s a contemporary musical instrument,” Fleck said. “Most banjo players don’t learn the skills to play jazz.”

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