Bela Fleck’s “Throw Down Your Heart”

Throw Down Your Heart, a DVD Documentary by Bela Fleck

An African / American Instrument  - the 5 String Banjo

We live in an American-centric world. By that I mean we view the world through the lens of what has, what might or what will impact on our North American world. Take the historical view of the slave trade. The common view is that the black populations of West Africa were scooped up and deposited on the plantations of the Caribbean, United States, Central and South America. That is by and large true but, at around the same time, black populations of East Africa were also being scooped up for the slave trade in the Middle East. Both of these commercial endeavours were more or less condoned by the religious institutions of the day. For long periods of time both  Christian and Moslem sensibilities seem to have been immune to the evils of the slave trade. Although it wasn’t the point of Bela Fleck’s odyssey and his documentary Throw Down Your Heart, the East Africa Slave trade is a sombre fact that emerges in what is otherwise a joyous journey through the music of Africa. In the past the slaves, on viewing the ocean for the first time realized, that  there would be no going home again and they had no alternative but to “throw down their heart” and become resigned to their fate.

The object of Bela’s trip through Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali was an exploration of African music to try and discover the origins of that most African of American instruments, the five string Banjo. This is an instrument that is synonymous with the music of the White Southern states of the USA. He did discover possible precursors of the modern banjo but what was more important was his discovery of a musical world that it vastly different from the Music Industrial complex that is prevalent in the west. In Africa, music is embedded in the social and cultural fabric of everyday life. It seems that everybody is musical and, outside of Afro/pop music, instruments are mostly homemade. The thumb piano, marimba, drums and various African Harps seem to exist in plethora of sizes shapes and styles. And, what is also important, the music and musical styles of these instruments has strongly influenced all African music. The double guitar leads in the Afro/pop of the Congo, Senegal and other African states are a translation of the ethnic styles of the indigenous thumb piano, Kora  and Balafon (Marimba).

One of the most astounding instruments encountered was a large Marimba  in a village in Uganda. On arrival the camera panned across a collection of rough carved, numbered and decorated planks leaning against the wall of a village hut. These were the component parts of a marimba that was assembled on large logs over a resonator pit dug in the ground. The planks were separated by vertical sticks to allow the planks to jump and reverberate when struck with pretty hefty lumps of wood. When played Bela described the music as louder than an amplified rock band. The marimba was played by a team of men who, along with other village drummers and singers created, what can only be described as very sophisticated melodic and rhythmic music.  It is a music that, probably by a round about route,  has influenced the music of the modern minimalist classical composer Steve Reich. Even a very cursory listen to his piece  Six Marimbas , written between 1973 and 1986, sounds like it came straight out of this village in Uganda.

In East Africa the other predominant instrument is the Thumb Piano . Some times they are hardly bigger than the palm of a hand but this is an instrument  capable of playing incredibly intricate melodies and rhythms. On hearing the music of East and West Africa it is easy to hear overtones of Cuban, Jamaican, Brazilian, Mexican and the whole cadre of music that can be described as reggae, samba, Latin or Afro/Cuban. It is joyous and infectious and a far cry from the blues based “downer” music of modern rock. However, apart from being a plucked instrument, the thumb piano is far away from being a precursor to the modern banjo. The ancestor of the modern banjo probably came to the New World with the slaves from West Africa. Senegal, Gambia and Mali were more likely to yield positive results in Bela’s search. The search that turned up the Akonting (Akonting)  in Gambia. Although only equipped with three strings it was played in a style reminiscent of traditional clawhammer banjo. The other contender, the Ngoni, had more than a passing resemblance in appearance and sound to the banjo.

So Bela found what he was looking for and probably much more. He found music and a musical way of life far different from what he left behind in North America. Why was it so different? Apart from the African sense of community that has music entrenched in every aspect of village life there is the over riding sense of rhythm. African music, and most world music for that matter, seems to be based on eighth rhythms (6/8, 9/8, 11/8 etc and any number of multiples of 8).   Most western popular music has a stronger reliance on rhythms in 4. It would make an interesting research project for some aspiring musicologist to unravel the reasons why 8th rhythms became largely lost in North America. Did the human heart beat rhythms of 8’s become overwhelmed by the mechanical 4’s of the industrial west? Did the over riding popularity of the nineteenth century marches of John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) have anything to do with it? Remnants’ of Africa still survives in the 12/8 beat of a typical shuffle blues and in the subtle swing of the dotted eighth notes in Jazz. But the rhythmic joy of typical African music only survives in those parts of the New World that are largely outside the influence of the white race. That is the Afro/Cuban, Caribbean  and Brazilian musical worlds.

Just as an aside, some time back Bonnie Raitt did a performance  on the TV show Austin City Limits. I like Bonnie and I have been a big fan for many, many years. However, half way though her set she introduced a musician from Zimbabwe to do a number and from the first chord of his music there was a monumental change. The tone lifted, the bass guitar started playing long sinuous lines and the music started to grove in a way that just compelled people to want to dance. When he had completed his performance and stepped off the stage, Bonnie and her band slipped back into the blues in what can be only described as a deflation of the joyous mood of the music from Zimbabwe. Still, for just a little while Africa did rule.

Bela Fleck’s DVD music documentary Throw Down Your Heart is definitely the most interesting and enjoyable night of viewing since I accidently came across Fatah Akin`s Crossing the Bridge –  The Sound of Istanbul. I would like to thank Rob Forbes for bringing Throw Down Your Heart to my attention.


Here is a far better and more complete version of Steve Reich’s Six Marimbas – the sound and the dynamics are way better on this YouTube. 6 Marimbas – better version . 

If you still have your sanity check this other Steve Rich composition Nagoya Marimbas