By Roy Kasten
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Both in his solo career and with his band the Flecktones, banjo player Béla Fleck is known as a virtuoso who crosses the nominal borders separating jazz, bluegrass, classical and other genres like a musical globetrotter. But with a multimedia effort called "The Africa Project," Fleck is now exploring a new continent of musical possibilities. The cross-discipline project includes a documentary film called Throw Down Your Heart, a companion CD and a tour featuring four of the musicians he first met in 2005 while filming and recording in Africa.
The project began with Fleck's interest in the African roots of the banjo, which is similar to an instrument called the n'goni that's used in Mali. He had known of the connections for some time, but "my interest got piqued when I started to hear some great African music" courtesy of friends in the jazz community. When Flecktones saxophonist Jeff Coffin spun some music from Mali's Oumou Sangare on the band's tour bus, it made an especially big impression upon Fleck.
"I wanted to play music with people like that," he says, adding that when the Flecktones decided to take a year off in 2005, "I was looking for something I could do with a whole year that I normally couldn't do, and Africa was the big looming thing in my wish list." After some false starts obtaining financing, Fleck decided to bankroll the project himself. He, director Sascha Paladino and a small film and audio crew spent three months traveling through Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and Mali, meeting musicians and recording and filming the encounters.
The resulting documentary played at various film festivals last year and is scheduled for general release in 2009. When it came time to tour, some of the more esoteric sounds they'd found — such as the chanting of a tribe of Masai warriors, or a fifteen-foot-long marimba that used an earthen pit as a resonator — weren't the kinds of things that could easily be transported. So Fleck created a touring sampler of sorts, enlisting four musicians representing different regions and distinct musical traditions.
"I wanted to bring over as many people as I could," he says, "and represent as many countries as possible, but still be able to fit on a bus."
The best-known musician is Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, who Fleck says is considered a superstar of African music and famous for being a great collaborator. South African singer/guitarist Vusi Mahlasela is highly regarded for his vocal prowess and for songs that document the past struggles and future promise of his country. Then there's the thumb-piano player and vocalist Anania Ngolia, a Tanzanian who Fleck calls "on the level of a Stevie Wonder — that's the kind of talent that he is" and "a marvelous musician who sings like a bird." Rounding out the lineup is D'Gary, who plays dance music and the traditional music of Madagascar on fingerstyle guitar. Each will perform solo and in duet with Fleck, who also promises "we'll do some stuff all together at the end."