October 25, 2010

Happy Mon. Nice moonlight last night and a few of the previous ones. Some wild animal tracked across our front yard in the night. Probably the neighbor’s dog. Could be a fox, though.  19 degrees.

We watched a really interesting documentary about Bela Fleck, the banjo wizard, who went to Africa to discover the roots of the banjo, which is thought to have come over to America with the slaves. Fleck is from NYC and first heard the banjo on The Beverly Hillbillies. He became a virtuoso banjoist, first in traditional styles, then as a modernist playing jazz and other nontraditional music for the instrument. The film shows his visits to four African countries—Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal, and Mali. In each place he meets with local musicians, some of them famous in Africa, and jams. A few speak English, most do not. But he is able to communicate with them through music, which is much more universal there than in America. Women doing dishes communally in African villages sing while they work. Men sing while they work outdoors. There is ritual singing and party singing. And many people play primitive musical instruments, often home-made, including several types of stringed instruments, flutes, and percussion instruments including drums, thumb-pianos (mbiras), and marimbas. Some of the marimbas are so large they can be played simultaneously by several players. By contrast, Fleck’s modern banjo looks like something from the machine age. But he is an acute listener and clearly appreciates the sheer musicianship of many of the people he meets.

It’s a goodwill tour as well as a music documentary. And some of the musicians are among the greatest natural musicians you are ever likely to hear. There’s a blind singer and thumb-piano player in Tanzania who is just amazing. He makes sounds with his vocal organs that you will never hear at the Grand Old Opry. There’s a young guy playing a stringed instrument that looks like a large gourd attached to a curved cane neck with a dozen or more strings who gets incredible sounds out of his instrument. There’s a guy playing a home-made three-string ukulele type instrument with such virtuosity you can hardly believe your eyes and ears. And there’s a guitar player who uses both hands to pluck and hammer strings to produce some of the most complicated picking I’ve ever heard. I’m a long-time fan of bluegrass and Appalachian Mountains music, as well as Celtic dance music, and have seen some great artists live, from Doc Watson and Norman Blake on guitar to Jerry Douglas on dobro, Alan Munde on banjo, Byron Berline and Vassar Clements on fiddle. These guys, and a famous woman singer from Mali, are well worth watching, not only for their skill, but for the interesting and very different music they make. The video is called Throw Down Your Heart. We got it from Netflix. The extra scenes include some great jamming that would be overlong for some viewers but is thoroughly enjoyable. Well worth watching as an example of how people in other places live and how we can bridge differences and generate mutual understanding through cultural exchange and an open mind.

You can see the trailer here

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