SOUTH AFRICAN GUITARIST AND SINGER songwriter Vusi Mahlasela grew up hearing the banjo, though mostly at missionary gatherings or in carnivals where the banjo evoked shades of American vaudeville. Since the early ’70s, Mahlasela has carved out his own territory in South African music, drawing on styles and themes of his own choosing. A few years ago, Mahlasela met Béla Fleck during a taping of the radio program etown, in Boulder, Colorado. Having heard Fleck was a quick study, Mahlasela suggested they play a song together. “I was curious how the banjo might fit with my sound,” he recalls. “With Béla you just play and he settles in nicely.” They performed a version of Mahlasela’s “Thula Mama” that was so good Fleck decided to include it on his new collection of African collaborations, Throw Down Your Heart [Rounder]. Ultimately he invited Mahlasela to be one of four African acts to join his Africa Project tour in the spring of 2009.
Fleck still marvels at that first connection with Mahlasela. “He showed me the song right before we went on,” says Fleck, “and we played it in front of an audience, and it was great. How often does that happen?” Fleck worked harder for most of the music on Throw Down Your Heart. In early 2005 he traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali, meeting, jamming, and recording with an impressive array of musicians. He brought along a recording engineer, a film crew, and enough gear to ensure that no encounter would go unrecorded. He accompanied the player of a massive marimba in Uganda, played with kalimba masters and harpists in Tanzania, with players of a possible banjo ancestor—the akonting—in Gambia, and with some of Africa’s laughed out loud as Fleck bore into his fretboard trying to echo the idiosyncratic language of Tounkara’s masterful Mande guitar style. The two ended up writing “Mariam” together, one of the hottest tracks on Throw Down Your Heart. Reflecting on such encounters, Fleck says, “It’s kind of up to me. If I show that I am really listening and trying, and that it’s not going to suck, they immediately feel better.”
It never sucked. And that goes double for the Africa Project tour. Aside from Vusi Mahlasela, Fleck collaborated with Madagascar’s maverick guitarist D’Gary, West Africa’s greatest kora player Toumani Diabaté, and Anania Ngoglia, a Tanzanian who plays the kalimba of the Gogo people. Fleck is particularly persuasive improvising in the mysterious Gogo pentatonic mode—G, A, B, D, F—trading riffs with the blind and brilliant Anania. “When I first met Béla I was very surprised that he could actually play what he was playing on the banjo,” recalls Anania. “And then I realized that I too can play more kinds of music on my kalimba than I thought.”
Anania is himself also a fine guitarist who performs on electric and plays fingerstyle at home. In 2004, in Dar es Salaam, I recorded him mimicking Gogo kalimba patterns on his guitar, and the resulting broadcast on public radio’s Afropop Worldwide in turn led Fleck to seek Anania out in Tanzania. On Fleck’s recent tour, Anania was accompanied by guitarist John Kitime, a veteran of The Kilimanjaro Band, Tanzania’s second oldest electric dance band. Kitime recalls the days when the Tanzanian government used to underwrite bands, and Hofner electric guitars and towering Ranger amplifiers from Italy were commonplace. “We are now in a situation where if you actually get a new guitar, you don’t ask what the name is. You don’t have a choice,” says Kitime. Anania confirms this, saying he prefers a Fender— any Fender—but he does not even know the make of the guitar he plays.
Part of the beauty of Fleck’s recent tour was the way it brought talented unknowns such as Anania and Kitime together with relative stars like Mahlasela and Diabaté. Fleck laid out while each act performed alone, and then joined each in turn, usually taking up his 1937, Gibson-style 75 flathead. At one point, he took the stage alone and picked out striking rhythmic melodies from Mali and Tanzania on a Gold Tone cello banjo, tuned almost an octave lower than standard— perfect for echoing the deep, melodic most august instrumentalists in Mali, including guitar maestros Djelimady Tounkara and Afel Bocoum, and the wizard of the banjo-like ngoni, Bassekou Kouyaté.
Fleck’s aggressive travel agenda was part of a strategy to circumvent his inner control freak. “By putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t really be completely prepared,” he says, “I was forced to dig deep into things that I do that I can’t tell you where they come from.” That’s important. Some American musicians go to Africa to learn new musical languages, and some seek ways to spice up music they already know—but Fleck wanted Africa to help him rewire his basic instincts as a player. “I’m not going to suddenly become a Tanzanian musician or a Malian musician, but I can be inspired by what they play, and not only for that moment when I am responding to them. It also inspires me when writing my own music or thinking about what makes a good song. Does a song really have to go through six time signatures like I used to think, or can it be in one? Does it really have to have all this harmony to be successful? No. I have been pegged as a complicated guy, and so it’s funny that I feel freer not being complicated in this setting, because the setting is already so unusual.”
As Fleck’s field producer in Mali, I saw firsthand how quickly he was able to grok unusual modes, rhythms, and melodic vocabularies—although occasionally, he struggled. Djelimady Tounkara riffed away on his acoustic guitar at lightning speed when the two first met, and thump of the lower-tuned Malian harps and lutes, particularly the kamelengoni, favored in the pentatonic Wassoulou music style.
Fleck says, “Looking at the ngoni and trying to figure out how that relates to your instrument, or the kamelengoni, or the kora, it’s just crazy. The guitar and the banjo are old friends, so it’s not so hard.”
In a show packed with intricate 12/8 and 6/8 grooves, there were moments of easy connection and familiarity, particularly during Mahlasela’s segment. “I’ve always loved sitting down with a great singer-songwriter with a great song and finding a banjo part to go with it,” says Fleck. “I can see the guitar fingers, and I understand what chords they’re playing, and where the harmony would be.”
Fleck weaves bluegrass picking into Mahlasela’s swinging “Thula Mama,” reserving a barrage of banjo notes for one, brief, well-constructed solo, improvised anew each night. “He’s really respecting at the same time as he’s enjoying it,” says Mahlasela. “It struck me that he’s got to know how I play everything. And he does that, but he can still go simple.” Mahlasela recently set aside his beloved Martin for a Rockbridge SJ, which is modeled after a Gibson J-185. “I like the Martin because the sound is great, but the body is a bit small.” Mahlasela is a big man who surrounds and dances with his guitar, picking nimbly with two fingers.
Fleck was also a natural with Diabaté and his kora. Both men are exquisite improvisers with flawless time and broad experience of working with musicians outside their traditions. Add to that the fact that the kora comes out of Mande music, which shares deep DNA with bluegrass through the history of the Atlantic slave trade. When bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen joined Fleck and Diabaté on stage, the sound seemed to evoke the hidden African history of Appalachia.
If Mahlasela’s segment showed Fleck as the consummate sideman, and Diabaté’s revealed the fleet, tasteful improviser, D’Gary’s portion found the banjo maestro in deep concentration mode, night after night. I caught four of the tour’s 15 shows, and found the D’Gary encounter to be the riskiest, and when it worked, the most rewarding. “D’Gary plays in a certain language, and he has to be comfortable,” says Fleck. “He is technically extremely capable, but he is also a very emotional player, and he has to feel it. But when he’s in his zone, it’s like cascades of sound. Nobody has ever played the guitar like that, so it’s like playing with a different instrument altogether.”
“Some people say music is talent, talent, talent,” says D’Gary. “But if you don’t work, you go nowhere. First you have to love it, and then you have to work.” As a young man, D’Gary toured all over Madagascar playing dance music in an electric band, but his true passion was studying the unusual, traditional music styles of his vast Indian Ocean island, full of unique stringed instruments and tricky dance rhythms. “I lived two lives,” he recalls. “Every day I played dance music. But every night I worked on my thing. I didn’t own a guitar. It was only on tour that I had access to one.”
During our interview, D’Gary tuned his low A down to G and high E down to D and moved up and down the neck finding comfortable zones to riff and drone within. D’Gary uses 23 different tunings, and the process of finding the right one as he composes is a constant challenge. “Sometimes I look long and hard, and sometimes I find it very quickly. I don’t play simple things. I’m always looking for good arpeggios, and I like to mix bass, chords, and solo lines. I can do that because I mostly play alone.” Both on his Chet Atkins nylon-string electric, and his Stonebridge dreadnought steel-string, D’Gary’s furious but gentle rhythmic picking produces an extraordinary array of sounds, from brushing, arpeggiated textures to clanging chords that jump out of the mix like a fire alarm.
Fleck’s African experience actually began when D’Gary and his splendid percussionist, Mario, spent a few days recording at Fleck’s Nashville home back in 2004. One of the tunes they created was a simple one-chord jam, and from that moment on, each time Fleck met a new African musician, he would get the player to add another track to the jam. “D’Gary’s Jam” on Throw Down Your Heart is the dense and dizzying result. The tune also became the show closer on the recent tour, with all the musicians coming onstage together. This first tour did not hit many big cities, but it never failed to produce a full house and a standing ovation. The Africa Project will continue, with more CDs and tours with other musicians, as well as the release of the documentary film.
“Some people find my music to be like math, and others find it to be pleasing and expressive,” observes Fleck. “I want it to be more expressive, and I’m learning about what makes good music from these guys every day.”