Family Reunions

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.”

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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