The banjo and African music
- Published: 10/02/2011 at 07:30 PM
- Online news:
Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck records his musical journey through Africa.
WORLD BEAT: Banjo master is still stringing them along by John Clewley
The renowned US musician Bela Fleck is widely regarded as one of the foremost players of the banjo, the top performer of his generation. He has done much to widen the repertoire of music played on the instrument by collaborating with Western classical musicians (he even released an album of classical music played on the banjo, which is some achievement in its own right), European musicians and even African stars like Malian kora master Toumani Diabate.
He has also stated that his aim is not only to broaden the range of music available to banjo players but also to dispel the "Southern [US] stereotype" of the banjo being playing only for bluegrass, for which, in terms of popularity at least, it is best known.
I have written before about how musical instruments like the banjo originated in Africa.
The banjo probably originated in Gambia, West Africa, and was taken by slaves to the Americas, where it was carried to places of work and played whenever time was available.
Eventually it was to become key in the development of jazz (the late Danny Barker of New Orleans is an excellent musician to listen to if you want to know the role of the banjo in jazz - you can see and listen to him on YouTube) before being dropped in the 1930s.
A little later it was seriously taken up by bluegrass and Appalachian musicians with the legendary Earl Scruggs acknowledged as the greatest player of all time, something Fleck agrees with.
Despite being a professional banjo player since he was a teenager, Fleck only found out quite late about the instrument's historical roots in Africa.
So instead of continuing with his collaborations with musicians from the Americas and Europe - and with his band, The Flecktones, taking a year-long sabbatical - he decided in 2005 to go to Africa to find out more about the instrument and to play with Africans.
The result of that trip is a documentary film, Throw Down Your Heart, and a related CD, Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions (Rounder, USA, 2009), both of which were released in 2009. The music was recorded in the field in Mali, Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Cameroon and Senegal
Parts of the album have a travelogue feel to them and some of the songs do go on for a long time, like an extended jam, but this is a minor quibble since the album is packed with surprises and some very good tracks.
Fleck sought out certain musicians before he went to Africa, in particular the kora (African harp) maestro Toumani Diabate, the Malian diva Oumou Sangare from the Southern Wassollou region, the Zawose family of Tanzania (offspring of the late thumb-piano master Hukwe Zawose) and Madagascar's famed guitarist D'Gary.
D'Gary performs with Fleck and a percussionist on D'Gary Jam and Kinetsa, both of which were actually recorded in a Nashville studio in the US, and with the telling addition of bluegrass fiddler Case Driessen.
They are among the best tracks on the album (Malagasy guitarists are pretty unique in their playing styles and well worth checking out): I've been bopping around to them both all week.
Not all the field recordings are made with stars, though. Fleck was disappointed to find out that Hukwe Zawose had passed away, but he did manage to find the blind sanza (thumb-piano) virtuoso Anania, with whom he dramatically duels - banjo to thumb-piano - on the final track, Dunia Haina Wema (Thumb Fun). Similarly, there's a wonderful lilting song called Angelina, performed in a village with the Luo Cultural Association.
The enthusiasm these players have for their music and the fun they're having laying together certainly comes across very strongly. But the track that caught heart is the simple, haunting ballad Djorolen, which features the beautiful voice of Oumou Sangare, set to Fleck's simple backing. It's a sublime track that deserves to be known more widely.
I haven't seen the DVD yet (and if any of you out there have seen it, let me know) but now I have heard the album I'm very keen to get hold of a copy. There are a few scenes to be found on YouTube that are really interesting - a good starting place for those interested in Fleck's epic and colourful African tour. Fleck took his instrument to Africa with the same humility that enables him to fit in anywhere; he deliberately did not place himself centre stage in any of the sessions. Consequently, he remains low-key, making every effort to let the local musicians lead.
The result is a fascinating set of collaborations between a Western musician and African musicians.
(Source: Bangkok Post, Arts & Culture > Music, WORLD BEAT, Banjo master is still stringing them along, 8/02/2011, John Clewley, link)
banjo -"a stringed instrument with, typically, four or five strings, which vibrate a membrane of plastic material or animal hide stretched over a circular frame. Simpler forms of the instrument were fashioned by enslaved Africans in Colonial America, adapted from several African instruments of the same basic design" (See Wikipedia)
master - a man who is very good at something ปรมาจารย์
renowned - famous and admired for a special skill or achievement ที่มีชื่อเสียง
Bela Fleck - "an American banjo player. Widely acknowledged as one of the world's most innovative and technically proficient banjo players, he is best known for his work with the bands New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones" (See Wikipedia and biography)
Flecktones - Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, an "instrumental group from the United States, that draws equally on bluegrass, fusion and jazz, sometimes dubbed "blu-bop". The band formed in 1988, initially to perform once on the PBS series Lonesome Pine Specials. The Flecktones have toured extensively since then, often playing over 200 concerts per year" (See Wikipedia)
X widely regarded as Y - many people believe that X is Y
foremost - most important and best ที่สำคัญที่สุด
generation - a group of people in society who are born and live around the same time รุ่น (คนรุ่นต่างๆ)
repertoire - all the music or plays, etc. that you can do or perform or that you know บทเพลงซึ่งเป็นที่รู้จักดี
instrument - musical instrument such as: piano, violin, trumpet, clarinet, etc...
classical - of recognized authority or excellence because it came from the most highly developed stage of an earlier civilisation and its culture, examples: classical literature, classical architecture, classical music
classical music - the art music that developed for hundreds of years in Europe, beginning with Christian religious music in the 9th century, using instruments such as piano and the violin (See Wikipedia)
musician - a person who can play music on a musical instrument or sing
classical musician - a musician who plays classical music
released - made available to the public
achievement - something very good and difficult that you have succeeded in doing การบรรลุผลสำเร็จ
aim - purpose; goal เป้าหมาย จุดมุ่งหมาย
broaden - to increase the range of something ขยับขยาย
range - a number of different things that are of the same general type ขอบข่าย
dispel - to remove fears, doubts and false ideas, usually by proving them wrong or unnecessary ทำให้หมดไป
stereotype - the general opinion or image that people have a certain group or people or country, usually negative (example: everyone from country X is dirty and never takes a shower)
bluegrass - a type of country music in the US played at a rapid tempo on banjos, fiddles (violins), banjos and guitars (See Wikipedia)
in terms of - as described by, measured by, explained by, etc...
popularity - when many people like something
key - important คนสำคัญ
development - the gradual growth and formation of something
late - dead already ที่ล่วงลับไปแล้ว
role - function, position or influence in a situation, organization or area of knowledge and expertise บทบาท
take up - start doing some activity seriously (examples: take up the guitar, take up playing the piano)
Appalachia (noun) - a mountainous poor area in the Eastern US (See Wikipedia)
Earl Scruggs - famous banjo player, "noted for perfecting and popularizing a 3-finger style (now called Scruggs style) on the 5-string banjo that is a defining characteristic of bluegrass music" (See Wikipedia)
acknowledged as - large numbers of people consider him as or accept him as (somebody important, with some important achievement)
historical roots - where something comes from (in the past)
collaborations - working with other people on projects
sabbatical - a period away from work for study, rest or travel, most commonly taken by university teachers
kora - African harp, a musical instrument with 21 strings made of a "large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator, and has a notched bridge like a lute or guitar" (See Wikipedia)
maestro - a skilled, admired and respected musician or conductor of an orchestra
diva - a famous woman singer
documentary - a film or television programme that deals with real people and events สารคดี
travelogue - a description of someone's travels, given in the form of a novel, journal, memoir, lecture or film (See Wikipedia on films and journal)
have a travelogue feel to them - listening to them has same feeling as reading or watching a travelogue
journal - a private daily record of experiences and thoughts, a diary (See Wikipedia)
in the field - at the place where research (or some other work) is done, not in a music studio (or laboratory)
jam - jam session, when "musicians gather and play (or simply "jam") without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements; improvisation" (See Wikipedia)
extended jam - a long jam session, longer than usual
minor - not important; small เล็กน้อย
quibble - some problem, mistake or imperfection (that a person finds, does not like and objects to)
packed - crowded; full of people or things แน่น
packed with surprises - has many surprises
tracks - individual songs on a CD, DVD, tape or record
percussion - musical instruments that make sounds when hit with a stick, shaken, rubbed, scraped, or any other action that causes vibration, includes drums, xylophones, gongs, cymbals (See Wikipedia)
percussionist - a person who plays percussion instruments such as the drums or the xylophone
Nashville - the city in the US that is the center of country music, at a performing hall named The Grand Ole Opry (See Wikipedia)
studio - recording studio, a specially designed room with special equipment for making high quality recordings of music (See Wikipedia and images and videos)
telling - indicative, meaningful
the telling addition of - the meaningful addition of
fiddle - informal way of saying "violin" (See Wikipedia)
fiddler - a person who plays the violin
unique - very special, unusual or good ที่มีลักษณะพิเศษ เป็นเอกลักษณ์
disappointed - unhappy because someone or something was not as good as you hoped or expected, or because something did not happen ผิดหวัง
passed away - died already
blind - unable to see ตาบอด
thumb-piano - (sanza, mbira) an African musical instrument with metal keys attached to a box or a board that vibrates and resonates (See Wikipedia)
virtuoso - a person who is very good at playing a musical instrument
dramatically - in a big way or exciting way อย่างใหญ่หลวง
duel - 1. a close competition between two people or teams, 2. a fight between two men with guns or swords in the distant past by men of high social status to defend their honour after being insulted การแข่งขันระหว่าง 2 คน, การต่อสู้ระหว่าง 2 คน
dueling banjos - a song with a "duel" between a banjo and a guitar made famous by the 1972 motion picture Deliverance (See Wikipedia)
lilting - forming a pleasant rising and falling pattern of sounds
enthusiasm - showing great interest, energy and happiness when being involved in a project or activity
simple - easy to understand; not complicated ง่าย,ไม่ยุ่งยาก, ไม่ซับซ้อน
ballad - a story sung as a song, often a love story (See Wikipedia) ลำนำนิทาน, เพลงที่มีใจความเป็นการบรรยายโวหาร,เพลงลูกทุ่ง,เพลงพื้นเมือง
haunting - beautiful in a way that makes you feel sad ที่ตรึงอยู่ในความเศร้าโศก
backing - support การสนับสนุน
sublime - extremely good or beautiful, a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation (See Wikipedia)
keen - very interested, eager or wanting (to do) something very much สนใจ, ใจจดใจจ่อ
epic - an event or activity that lasts a long time and is difficult or complicated งานที่ยิ่งใหญ่
humility - a way of behaving that shows that you do not think that you are better or more important than other people ความนอบน้อม อ่อนน้อมถ่อมตน
fit in - be appropriate or suitable in a situation
deliberately - done intentionally; done on purpose จงใจ ตั้งใจ
place himself centre stage - make yourself the most important part
session - a formal meeting การประชุม
X Consequently, ...Y - X and then as a result Y happens and then Y happens because of X
low-key - without a lot of activity or a big reaction (example: a low-key welcome for the Prime Minister without ceremony or special events)
effort - the energy and enthusiasm that people put into an activity ความพยายาม
making every effort to Y - do every possible to achieve goal Y, do everything you can to achieve goal Y
local - in or related to the area that you live, or to the particular area that you are talking about ท้องถิ่น
fascinating - extremely interesting น่าหลงใหล, มีเสน่ห์
collaboration - people working together to achieve a goal
About the author
- Writer: Jon Fernquest
Position: Assistent Manager Educational services