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Béla Fleck’s excellent adventure

Bela Fleck with two African musicians

Before it was Béla Fleck’s current tour, Throw Down Your Heart was a documentary film, an album, and the album’s title track. The subtitle on the film’s website is “Bela Fleck brings the banjo back to Africa.” What he got in return, apparently, is a wonderfully diverse group of musical interlocutors. Last week, thanks to Duke Performances, they joined Fleck, one or two at a time, on the stage in Page Auditorium. The long and idiosyncratic concert was a pleasure all the way through.

The musicians came from far-flung parts of the continent, and to some extent they captured the musical personality of their region. Toumani Diabaté, a 72nd generation griot who plays the kora, is certainly a West African classic. He came out last, wearing flowing golden robes—like musical royalty, a friend of mine said. Before him, it was South African Vusi Mahlasela, a powerhouse singer from the continent’s economic and vocal powerhouse, a man with a message and the personal magnetism to get it across. Before him, from the enigmatic island of Madagascar—fringe Africa, I guess you could call it—we heard an enigmantic guitar virtuoso named D’Gary with an utterly distinctive style. And finally, from East Africa, Anania Ngoliga, an impish blind man who sings like a chicken.

OK, OK, that’s not fair. Ngoliga and his guitar-playing partner John Kitime are wonderful musicians, and in fact Fleck has singled out Ngoliga for his formidable skills as an improviser. But it was funny (kind of sweet, even) how well the evening’s lineup fit with my feeling that East Africa is the poor stepchild of African music. Here’s a commonplace impression of African music, from an article I found when I googled Vusi Mahlasela (and incidentelly, it has some interesting things to say about Mahlasela and South African music, though I can’t vouch for its accuracy):

Music is as African as the Big Five, as much a staple of African life as maize meal. Music and song feature in celebration, in mourning, to uplift and to protest.

I don’t know Africa as a whole, or even East Africa as a whole, but I do know a bit about Kenya. The Big Five (the glamorous game animal club—lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino) is very big in Kenya, especially with tourists and their guides. And maize meal is ubiquitous, as advertised. But “music and song in celebration,” etc.? Not so much, not in East Africa as I’ve seen it, anyway—it might be quite different in the part of Tanzania that Ngoliga and Kitime come from. But the Kenyans I know relate to music about the same way Americans do. They like their Congolese afropop, and I’ve known some to be big fans of international acts like Bob Marley and Dolly Parton. They rarely talk about music that’s indigenous in the way a South African or Malian or Zimbabwean would, and it’s even rarer to actually hear such indigenous music. I do sometimes hear ceremonial chanting from the Maasai, but only when they’re dancing for tourists.

If East Africa isn’t the most musical part of African, that just made it sweeter to hear Ngoliga and Kitime play their amiable, lilting music. And when Fleck joined them his banjo meshed beautifully with Ngoliga’s resonant mbira (or whatever it’s called in his neck of the woods). In a musical game Fleck played with several of the other instrumentalists, he would try to echo an improvised phrase that his partner had just played. Ngoliga had the most fun with it, trying to trip Fleck up with quick figures that were more idiomatic on mbira than banjo. Sometimes the effort showed, but Fleck usually nailed them anyway—what made it a really fun, for the musicians for the audience as well. The chicken song was really about one of Ngoliga’s past girlfriends who sounded like a chicken. It did sound chickenish at times, but the dead-on poultry imitations were actually by way of introduction. The song included one of my favorite musical moments of the evening, though, a line that climbed all the way up the neck of the banjo and then cascaded down with a mbira waterfall.

I’ve never heard anything quite like D’Gary’s intricate guitar playing, which I found both impressive and elusive (here’s a good sample from YouTube). It was when he sang that the music came into focus. At the end of their set, Fleck brought out violinist Casey Drieson and joked about exploring the very distant connections between bluegrass and Malagasy music. Fair enough—there’s a wide stretch of water between Madagascar and the continent (shark-infested water, according to the helpful guidebook I read before flying over it), and the closest relative of the Malagasy language is spoken in Borneo. But the fiddle is ubiquitous, and in any case Drieson’s crisp bowing was a great compliment to D’Gary’s scurrying guitar.

There are a couple of fine posts on zunguzungu about Throw Down Your Heart, including a sharp one about “the boxes that musicians get put into,” even by New York Times music critics with the best of intentions, when those musicians go to a place like Africa to seek out the natives. Fleck wasn’t doing ethnography, and he wasn’t in the market for an odyssey of personal transformation. Speaking to music critic Steve Hochman for an article in Spinner.com Fleck described his musical purpose this way:

I wanted to put the modern banjo in their music and make it sound like it belonged—not use them for a backup band but look for a home. Some places I can blow my brains out like with Djelimany Tounkara, the hot guitar player, or with Anania, the blind thumb piano player. But other places I could just be the backbone or look for a rhythmic place to fit in. My goal is to make it sound like it belongs. Doesn’t sound like much as a mission statement, but that’s everything I do.

It’s as if Paul Simon had gone to South Africa to sing in the choir, not to find new sounds to spice up the mix on his next album. For a soloist and bandleader like Fleck who’s dedicated to musical challenge and spontaneous improvisation, it’s a remarkable approach to take. For the tour Fleck must have chosen partners who, like Anania Ngoliga, offered more give and take—I think that, like Fleck himself, they’re the kind of musicians who appreciate a challenge and would want more from him than just fitting in. But with every combination that came on stage last week it was clear that the Africans set the tone and showed the way, with one exception that just highlighted the rule. At the end of Diabaté’s set, before the grand finale, Fleck had kora and violin join him on his composition “Throw Down Your Heart,” a piece he started writing before he’d even landed in Africa.

It makes sense that this role reversal happened with Diabaté. There’s a similarity between the sound of the kora and the banjo, presumably because of similarities in their construction. In Western terms the kora is a kind of harp—it has 21 strings, one for each note it can produce—but a harp that’s strung over a bridge that sits on a drum resonator, like a banjo. More important than the sound, I think, is the history of collaborations between American musicians and the griots and guitar players of West Africa. A landmark in that history is the 1995 album Talking Timbuktu by Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré. When I lived in Chicago in the early 90s I had the good fortune to hear a Gambian kora player, Foday Musa Suso, who’d been in the city since 1970. If I ever manage to clear off enough space to set up my record player, one of the first disks I’ll spin will be his fabulous duet with Herbie Hancock, Village Life. In 2003, Diabaté recorded MALIcool with freewheeling jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd. When the band came to Duke a couple years later the kora player was Toumani’s cousin Mamadou Diabate, who had recently moved to exotic Durham, NC (he’s still here, and last week Toumani called him onstage for a quick hello). Not that the Tanzanians and Malagasy have been living lives of splendid musical isolation—it’s very hard to do that anywhere in the world, these days—but they’re still more remote from the world of an adventurous American musician than Diabaté is.

Vusi Mahlasela is the one who breaks the mold. The other musicians in the show are primarily instrumentalists, and that’s how Fleck relates to them. Mahlasela is essentially a singer-songwriter, and he has a singer-songwriter’s relationship to his guitar—he’s not, by any means, a mere strummer, but his guitar playing is entirely at the service of his singing. One of his favorite effects, in fact, is to play in unison as he sings, à la George Benson. He’s an exceptionally dynamic performer, a “‘sterling voice’ filled with ‘as much playfulness as righteousness’”, to quote the program quoting the New York Times. There wasn’t a lot for Fleck to add to that, though the two played together nicely enough.

In South Africa they call Mahlasela “the Voice,” not just because of the way he sounds but also because of the message, which comes straight out of the crucible of apartheid. Speaking as an emissary of the South African trinity—Mandela, Tutu, and Ghandi—he admonished us that there is wisdom in forgiveness, and we should wear it like crown. If that’s not from a bible verse, it should be. Either way I’m sure he’s not the first person to put it that way, but it’s a wonderful image and he delivered it with an authority that made it stick. He also dedicated a song to the women of South Africa, and before he played it he talked about the police showing up at his house one night only to be sent on their way by his scrappy grandmother and a pot of boiling water. You can hear the story too, thanks to Ted.

I don’t know how Fleck put the lineup together, though I’ve been wondering about it. I’m sure there were lots of practical considerations in addition to the musical and personal ones. He chose people that he’d enjoy sharing the stage with—that much was clear all evening—and the wide geographical and stylistic range (musical and personal) can’t be a coincidence. He also seems to put a premium on playfulness. It came through when he was with Ngoliga and Mahlasela, especially, though with the South African it was more in the banter than the music. As the two of them were joking around, Mahlasela started talking about visiting a friend in jail who’d been working day and night on a song and wanted desperately to share it with the world. I thought he’d turned serious—he must have had plenty of friends who went to jail—but then he started scraping his guitar strings to make the sound of a file on iron bars. Mahlasela sings in six different South African languages, so naturally his large repertoire of vocal effects includes some of those famous South African clicks. He warned anyone tempted to try them at home watch out—“Don’t break your tongue.” It was a gleeful reminder of our linguistic impoverishment, and the richly rolled r just rubbed it in.

After four on-stage combinations, an intermission and a couple of solo interludes Fleck played on his own, it was a pretty long show. It seems to be de rigeur with these things that everyone plays together at the end, but I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t. It can be a risky arrangement, a feel-good, we-are-the-world gesture with no musical purpose. In this case it took a while for it to gel, but it did. To my ear it was the singing that made it happen. When they all came back for an anthemic encore, which was even better, I found myself focussing on Mario, the percussionist who accompanies D’Gary. His instrument is a shaker made from condensed milk cans filled with broken glass, which doesn’t seem like a lot to work with but somehow he always found the perfect groove. In the end, with everyone on stage and in full swing he was not only shaking but singing and smiling and looking around. Back home in Tulear he’s a fisherman, and it struck me how truly unlikely it was for him to have ended up on that stage. It must seem like a pretty wild ride.

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Part of the reason my attention settled on Mario is that I passed through his home town back in 1994. My (future) wife and I were on our way to visit a friend who was doing research in one of Madagascar’s national parks, and to get there we flew from Antananarivo to Tulear. I don’t remember much about the city—it’s not a place you visit for its own sake—but I do remember asking around for transportation to the park, and pretty soon people with vehicles were showed up at the hotel, happy to help (for a fee, of course). The alternative was a long bumpy ride on a public bus with a transfer to an ox-drawn cart to get into the park, and our two weeks in the country didn’t leave time for that kind of adventure, wonderful as it might have been.

There were one or two four-wheel drive vehicles we could have chosen, but we went with the low bidder, a guy named Thierry with a fairly new Peugeot wagon. He promised it would get us there just fine, and it did. Every so often, though, there’d be an extra loud clunk and he’d stop in the middle of the massively rutted dirt road so the mechanic he’d brought along (for good reason) could step out to retrieve part of the exhaust system. They’d shrug and then we’d be lurching down the road again. Thierry had never actually driven to the place we were going, and as the sun was setting and we were really starting to wonder, the road in front of us disappeared into a lake-sized puddle. A person who happened to be walking by directed us to a nearby village, where someone kindly let us camp in their courtyard. In the morning, with a local guide to get us around the flooded-out road, it was a quick ride to the research camp. Overall it wasn’t a bad trip at all—Thierry was amiable all the way, despite the car falling apart, which must have cut into his profit margin quite a bit.

My world music experience in Madagascar was cruising along in Thierry’s bright blue Peugeot with “I Like to Move It” blasting from the stereo. Not only had I not heard it before then, I had no category to put it in, so in my mind it was music of Madagascar (rationally I knew it wasn’t, of course). A few months later we were back in the states, and thanks to Susan’s plush fellowship we spent a few nights in a room in one of Harvard’s residential houses while we were apartment hunting. The first thing that came blasting through the wall from the students next door was a track I hadn’t heard since I was on the road from Tulear, fruity bass line and all. That’s why they call it World Music.

My popular-culture crystal ball (such as it is) has never been as weirdly penetrating as when I pegged “I Like to Move It” as the music of Madagascar.

OK, I know, it’s Madagascar 2.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Aaron | April 16, 2009 at 19:49 | Permalink

    Man, would have loved to see that show. Sounds fun. Thanks for the run-down.

    I almost want to stand up for Tanzanian music a bit, though. My experience when I was there was that while the radio might have played a lot of Congolese or American pop music, people chose to buy tapes from Tanzanian pop singers when they had the choice. Maybe because TZ is completely swahili-phonic, there’s a particular market demand for swahili pop music. And there’s taarab on the coast too. But I do feel your point; such music isn’t really celebrated for its indigeneity in the sense you meant it, I think. But then, by that standard, nobody really holds a candle to those Malian cats.

    ~   ~   ~

    There is something really deep about the Malians, it’s true. The Shona tradition in Zimbabwe is as deep, though. It’s just more low-key and doesn’t have, for us, the sense of being on the other side of a broken umbilical to the blues. And for vocal music I don’t think anyplace beats South Africa.

    In that bit about East African music (or the lack of it) I was playing with an impression I’ve had for a long time. There’s the cliché, either pro- or anti-African, of the continent drenched in music (or just drumming), and then there’s the things I know about African music, which mostly come from somewhere besides East, and then there’s the part I’ve seen and heard in person. A big problem with my frame of reference is that many of my impressions of the rest of the continent come from the music and musicians I hear or meet in the states—an extremely biased sample.

    I’m sure I’d have a somewhat different impression if I spent time with Barack’s people in Western Kenya. The one Kenyan I’ve known who talked about the roots music back home was Luo. He even gave me one of the instruments, a kind of zither, and I heard a traditional/pop band from that area in a club in Nairobi once (right after the election, news from Kenya was that everyone there is now Luo—I’m not sure how long that will last, though).

    I think the emphasis on swahili in TZ does make a difference. Last time I walked around the Nairobi city center, a few years ago, I was amazed at how many Kenyans were speaking english to each other. The one singer from TZ that I’m familiar with, and that I’ve talked about with Kenyan friends, is Remy Ongala. My wife and I used to fantasize about being in Namanga when he came through—apparently he does from time to time (or did—I don’t know whether he’s still in circulation or not). I would love to know more about Anania Ngoliga and his gorgeous ax, though.