The Common Good
August 2009

Family Reunions

by Danny Duncan Collum | August 2009

Two multimedia projects see Africa as the planet's musical heart and soul.

IN THE FILM Throw Down Your Heart, an African musician says, “There is this negative thinking about Africa. There is nothing good in Africa. They are beggars, there is HIV/AIDS, they are at war all the time. But that is just a very small bit of what Africa is.”

True enough. Despite its troubles, Africa is, for one thing, the mother continent of all humanity—the roots and trunk of our great extended family tree. In addition, these two recent music video projects, Béla Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart and Mark Johnson’s Playing for Change, make a powerful case for Africa as the cornerstone of contemporary popular culture and the musical heart and soul of the planet.

Throw Down Your Heart documents a journey through Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali that began when banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck decided to take his instrument back to its roots. Those roots seem to be in West Africa, where a stringed instrument called the akonting is said to have departed on a slave ship from the Gambian port of Banjul. The idea for a trip to Africa began to form when Fleck “discovered where the banjo originally came from,” he says. “I developed the suspicion that some of the greatest acoustic music on earth is hidden in the small villages in Africa.”

And that’s what he found. The film opens with a scene of Fleck playing banjo in an African village. After a while, he is joined by a fiddler, an African man bowing a one-stringed local version of a violin. Over this opening sequence, another of Fleck’s African musical partners remarks, “Béla Fleck wanted to take the banjo back to Africa and let it play with its old folks.”

Fleck is an ideal candidate for closing this musical circle. A native New Yorker, he nonetheless was smitten with bluegrass and is based in Nashville with his band, The Flecktones. But over the years Fleck has strayed into jazz and other cross-genre collaborations. The CD of Throw Down Your Heart is presented by Rounder Records as the third installment in his series, “Tales from the Acoustic Planet.”

The album makes for interesting listening. But this collaboration is best experienced through its feature-length DVD that allows you to see the players at home, and to see the instruments that make some of these incredible sounds. Most incredible is the giant marimba, seen in a Ugandan village, which is constructed over an enormous pit in the earth and hammered by an ensemble of men. The land-culture connection is no metaphor here.

The project’s instrumental title track is one Fleck wrote during his African pilgrimage. In Tanzania he was told that the phrase “throw down your heart” is the literal translation of the name of the port town, Bagamoyo, where Arab slave traders shipped their cargo to the east. “Throwing down the heart” is what the Africans did when they saw the ocean and realized they would never go home. Here it is a sad, vaguely Celtic melody that is finally recorded during Fleck’s last stop in Mali in a dueling banjos session with Bassekou Kouyate on the ngoni, the banjo of Mali.

Gambia was where the banjo shipped out for America. And during Fleck’s Gambian visit, we see a man split a dried gourd, stretch an animal skin tight across it, and construct an akonting before our eyes. Later we see him play the instrument with the “clawhammer” attack that is familiar to any aficionado of Appalachian old-time music.

A project like this holds plenty of opportunities for old-fashioned cultural imperialism, but Fleck mostly avoids them. The affinity between the African musicians and their paler comrade is real. And Fleck has a genuine moment of tearing up on camera as Ugandan villagers bid him and his crew an especially heartfelt farewell.

At the end of the film, Fleck leaves an American banjo with the young son of a Malian ngoni master, after showing the boy how to string and tune it. And so the circle is completed. But at the end of Throw Down Your Heart, we’re left to wonder how, in America, this African instrument eventually became the emblem of the virtually all-white country music culture.

For the answer to that question, one can turn to a white Eastern Kentucky banjo player named Randy Wilson. When I first saw Randy, he was singing “Bye Bye Blue … you good dog you” and accompanying himself on an ngoni. Appalshop, the Appalachian arts and culture center, has posted a video on YouTube of Wilson playing an African banjo. In his live performances, Wilson tells a story of the early colonial days in the Virginia Tidewater when white indentured servants from the British Isles worked the tobacco fields alongside Africans brought ashore by the slave trade. “They worked, lived, played, and married together in those early days,” Wilson says. “Whites took up the African banjo and blacks picked up the European fiddle.” The great division came, he says, when “the planters began to fear the power of this diverse rabble, so they began to make differences in their work, to divide and conquer.”

Who’d have thought it? Maybe the humble banjo could hold the key to the healing of America’s deepest and most painful wounds—the severing of Africans from their homeland, and the awful color line that has, for more than three centuries, divided Americans who belong together.

Playing for Change: Peace Through Music casts the net of global unity even wider. When you hear the project described, it sounds like a digital parlor trick. Musicians are recorded all over the world—from New Orleans to Nepal—playing the same song, together, through the miracle of overdubbing. But when you see and hear it, seamlessly edited together, you quickly forget the techno-trickery and get lost in the emotion.

Typical is the track that starts the whole project, Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” It begins with African-American street singer Roger Ridley in Santa Monica, California, and by the end Ridley has been joined by other street players in New Orleans, a drummer in Congo, an upright bass player in the South African countryside, a cellist in Moscow, an Italian sax player, Zuni drummers in New Mexico, and many, many more.

Playing for Change includes plenty of Asian and European players in its mix. But the glue that holds together this musical collage is the now-universal language of African rhythms. And part of the point of the project is to pay back some of the cultural debt owed the mother continent. All profits from Playing for Change products go to the Playing for Change Foundation, which is building music schools in poor and neglected places. The first one is already up and running in South Africa.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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