Of hope and banjos

Throw Down Your Heart

on March 17, 2009 by Sara Schieron
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Banjo master Béla Fleck brings his instrument of choice to Africa to discover its roots. Rendered with a surprisingly artless quality, this doc leaves its poetry to the interviewees and, of course, the music. The title of the film is the name of a town in German East Africa where the slave boats docked. When a person was said to find himself at the sea, a terrain he might have only ever heard about, he understood his fate and was advised to “Throw Down Your Heart.” Touching in ways words only vaguely reveal, this documentary brings a beautiful lightness onto its four different locations, their music and their people. If wider audiences had cause to attend, the film could cause a great stir, but potential box office for this one will likely match the body count at a run-of-the-mill banjo concert.

Fleck is sort of like the Joshua Bell, or rather, the Eddie Van Halen of banjo players. He’s played the great American venues and recorded with famous musicians internationally. In Throw Down Your Heart, his love for this primarily Southern and bluegrass instrument takes him to Africa, where he hopes to locate the banjo’s origins and reintroduce it to its homeland. In the process we piggyback on an ethno-musical tour of four nations who, we can sense immediately, are our musical forebears.

Organized around the four stops on Fleck’s tour (Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, Mali), each nation introduces us to a facet of the African music and culture: in Uganda the songs (an upbeat, almost be-bop sound) speak of loss, in Tanzania, the songs sound plaintiff but speak of hope. These nations present a kind of emotional landscape, each with a different musical style bearing comparison to one of America’s native styles, and so, demonstrating sonic connections between the origin of American music and the history of slavery. Fleck’s tour guides are each great musicians. The thumb-harp prodigy who takes him through Uganda brings him to the grave of his father, located just yards from the home where he grew up. Noting how divided America is from our dead, and, by association, our origins, Fleck pays reverence to the culture and the musician—and indirectly identifies the film’s greater agenda of pursuing roots. Together, the son and Fleck play a song that seems inspired by the plinking sound of waterfalls. “Death comes to us,” the musician seems to improvise, “Death that used to be for chickens is at our door.” Clearly decrying the loss of fathers and generations of men, both musicians are reduced to tears—and they’re not alone.

In Tanzania, Fleck is honored to play with the Ray Charles of Africa. A lover and a rock star in his native country, the blind musical genius (he plans dozens of instruments) stands by the water while his guide explains how sadness overcame the first boats and there were many casualties, but on the second trip, someone brought a banjo (or the instrument’s ancestor) and it buoyed the spirits of the prisoners enough to forestall death. It was also rumored that the banjo was played in the woods at night to lure passersby into the snares of the slave traders. There’s tragedy lurking behind every story, but also a necessity that transforms mere histories into something sacred.

Mali is the most cosmopolitan city Fleck visits. African diva Oumou Sangare guides Fleck through Bamako, the country’s capital. An unparalleled songstress and so famous she doesn’t need license plates, Sangare is half-singer, half-philanthropist. A sort of body of the people, she sings from her own tragedy and funds orphanages in her spare time. As opposed to representing a loss from the past or a hope for the future, all that we find in Mali is in a sort of unpredictable present tense. Sangare sings in a wrenching but beautiful timbre about herself, she is “the worried songbird” and the journey is far from over.

Distributor: Argot Pictures
Cast: Béla Fleck, Oumou Sangare, Hukwe Zuwose
Director: Sasha Paladino
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 97 min
Release date: March 13 SF, April 24 NY, June 5 LA

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