Friday, April 3, 2009
Bela Fleck And African Acoustic Masters On Tour In America
Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow recently spent three days on tour with Bela Fleck’s Africa Project in Connecticut and New York State. The lineup included Toumani Diabaté of Mali, Vusi Mahlasela of South Africa, D’Gary of Madagascar, and Anania Ngoglia of Tanzania. The shows offered an unprecedented cross-section of acoustic African music, à la Bela Fleck, culminating in one awesome jam with all the artists on stage for two songs. Afropop interviewed all the musicians, and there will be more on air and on line in the weeks to come. Here’s an initial report from Banning Eyre, with photos from The Ridgefield Playouse (Ridgefield, CT), EMPAC (Troy, NY) and The Tarrytown Music Hall (Tarrytown, NY) over the weekend of March 27-29, 2009.
The world’s most adventurous banjo player, Bela Fleck, began delving into African music in a serious way about five years ago when he recorded a few songs with the one-of-a-kind Malagasy guitarist D’Gary. D’Gary and his phenomenal percussionist/vocalist Mario stayed with Fleck in Nashville for a few days, and the songs they recorded together turned out to be the opening act of an unprecedented venture into African music. Early in 2005, Fleck traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali to play with musicians there. He traveled with a film and recording crew, and this spring, a first CD and an excellent documentary film on DVD—both entitled Throw Down Your Heart—are on the market at last. Both are excellent, but neither can quite match the experience of seeing this unusual project play out on stage. The musical lineup for this tour is to-die-for, and the reaction of Fleck’s fans—who are natural fans for acoustic African music, even though most have yet to hear it—was gratifying to see.
I served as Fleck’s field producer in Mali, where I had the pleasure of watching the banjo maestro figure out how to jam with and accompany Oumou Sangare, Afel Bocoum, Djelimady Tounkara, Bassekou Kouyaté, and kamele ngoni ace Harouna Samake, among others. These encounters figure into the film and CD, but on stage for this tour, Fleck’s Malian foil is Toumani Diabaté. Diabaté was not in Bamako when we visited, but he and Fleck began playing together in Europe this past January and clicked instantly. In fact, before the current tour started, they performed a set of shows as a duo on the west coast. All the other principles in the concert appear on the Throw Down Your Heart CD, and the concert repertoire is largely drawn from that release.
The two-and-a-half hour concert began each night with Bela playing a banjo solo, a medley of African songs, starting with “Throw Down Your Heart,” a song he wrote en route to Africa in 2005. From there, the show unfolded in segments where Fleck would invite each collaborator to the stage in turn. Each would play first without Fleck, and then with him. The first half of the program featured Anania Ngoglia and D’Gary. The second featured Vusi Mahlasela and Toumani Diabate. And then that big jam.
Anania is surely the least known artist of the group. In fact, just about the only way any American might ever have heard him is the way Bela first did, on Afropop Worldwide’s 2004 “Visit to Dar Es Salaam” program. Anania is a blind multi-instrumentalist and singer, and a remarkable talent. For this occasion he played the Wagogo thumb piano called ilimba (plural, confusingly, marimba). This is the deep-toned lamellophone best known from recordings by Hukwe Zawose. Anania does play Wagogo traditional music with its distinctively mysterious scale, and his jam on this music with Fleck was the spiritual high point of this segment. Before that, Anania showed more playful aspects of his art. Accompanied on vocal and guitar by John Kitime, he sang a praise song to Tanzania, and then a rolling 12/8 number punctuated by vocal scatting in unison with the ilimba. When Fleck came to the stage, the two traded riffs freely, clearly enjoying each other’s musicality.
Fleck then reached for his “cello banjo,” a rich-sounding, low-register variant on his instrument. He played a medley of songs from Mali and Tanzania. The instrument’s tonality is not that far off the Malian kamele ngoni, the harp used in Wassoulou music, and so when Fleck improvised on songs by Oumou Sangare and Afel Bocoum, it worked beautifully.
Next came D’Gary, a truly fearsome musician, from a jammer’s point of view. D’Gary is a master of Madagacar’s difficult rhythms, but his art goes beyond that. He has created a rhythmic and harmonic language on the guitar all his own. He and his accompanist Mario have travelled a long, crooked musical road together, and can sense each other’s moves intuitively. Jumping into this world was clearly the greatest challenge in the show for Fleck, and the depth of the lock between them varied from night to night. Most challenging was their first song together, “Mare Rano,” a furious 12/8 with a lot of back and forth interaction before D’Gary settled into a quasi South African bass riff. Then Fleck invited bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen to the stage to explore the “Madagascar bluegrass connection” on “Kinetsa,” one of D’Gary’s most melodious songs, and a standout on the Throw Down Your Heart CD.
The second started with Vusi Mahlasela, a true showman and effectively a one man band. Mahlasela is a delightful guitarist, but a masterful singer, who ranges from cooing to growling to soul shouts and everything in between, always with vivid expression and amazing control. He spoke powerfully about his experiences during the struggle in South Africa, and each night, spoke about the “wisdom of forgiveness,” urging the audience to “wear it like a crown.” The songs he played with Fleck draw from the swing of South African jazz and worked very naturally with the banjo. Fleck was restrained and folksy, meshing with Mahlasela’s guitar like a master sideman, and stepping out for a short, virtuosic solo on “Thula Mama.”
Toumani Diabaté is one of the most compelling instrumentalists alive, so it made sense to save him for last. The serene, water-like peels of melody and texture on his solo kora piece—the somewhat melancholy, deeply reflective “Elyne Road” from his recent CD Mande Variations—created a peaceful mood that was most welcome after all that had come before. When Fleck took the stage, they played two of his songs, one written for Toumani, and then “Throw Down Your Heart,” with Driessen’s violin adding rich, reedy texture with Diabaté’s gentle cascades of support. The presence of banjo and fiddle brought out the folksy side of the kora, and by extension, the mysterious connection between Mande music and American folk. We know the banjo descended from West African lutes, like the Mande ngoni. Obviously, nothing as elaborate as the kora survived the Atlantic passage, but something of the music’s spirit did make the journey, and echoes on in the American south. The ease with which Fleck and Diabaté conversed musically is the mark of master improvisers, but there was also a suggestion of this deeper, historical connection.
When all the musicians took the stage, the played Mahlasela’s signature song, “When You Come Back,” with all sorts of new layers and interactions added. All at once, they did not exactly sound like a band. After all, these are all soloists! But they interacted with great spirit and sensitivity, and it was a thrill just to see such a broad array of master acoustic musicians playing together on one stage. The encore was the “D’Gary Jam” from the Throw Down Your Heart CD, a freeform jam based on a simple riff, with lots of room for playful riffing and vocalizing. The back and forth between Anania’s singing and Fleck’s responses on banjo was particularly satisfying. This number brought the crowd to their feet at all three shows. These crowds—full or nearly full houses every time—were simply blown away. And rightly so. Nothing like this has ever happened before. The good news is that Fleck wants to do more African tours, likely with different collaborators. There are a few chances left to catch this tour. If you’re within striking range, it’s well worth the trip.
- DJ Vico
- Jackson Heights, N.Y, United States
- Naci en Cali,Colombia,ciudad salsera por excelencia,considerada como "Capital Mundial de la Salsa". Desde niño conoci los ritmos afro-caribeños de la mano de la Sonora Matancera los cuales fueron mis inicios salseros. Muy joven salgo del pais hacia Europa y encuentro que los ritmos latinos habian llegado y comenzaban a pegar muy fuerte.España,Francia e Italia estaban alborotados por el sabor y el ritmo afro latino. En esta misma epoca tube la oportunidad de viajar a Africa y conocer mucho mas de los inicios de la salsa al escuchar los tambores Bata de las manos de los africanos. A mi regreso a Cali reafirmo mi gusto por la salsa compartiendo y aprendiendo de grandes maestros y coleccionistas caleños y asistiendo a salsotecas tradicionales como La Barola, La Ponceña, La Mulenze y por supuesto La Taberna Latina de Gary Dominguez. Sigo despues con mis viajes por las antillas:Cuba, Puerto Rico, Republica Dominicana y alli sigo absorbiendo mas ese sabor salsero que ya inundaba estas tierras. Decido radicarme en New York, donde me he encontrado a grandes figuras de la salsa que han decidido vivir aca y mostrar el sabor de la salsa desde la Capital del Mundo.