In Gambia, Bela Fleck (left) recorded with the Jatta family. Remi Jatta played the akonting, an ancestor of the modern banjo.
Courtesy of the artist
A few years ago, banjo master Bela Fleck set out to explore the birthplace of his instrument: Africa.
From Mali to Gambia, Fleck collected songs and stories. He returned with an album's worth of material, collected on Throw Down Your Heart.
That expression, people in Gambia say, captures the loss at the moment enslaved Africans arrived on the coast, saw the sea and the ship, and knew they would never see home again. But Bela Fleck also notes that the banjo (or rather, its predecessors) was often taken aboard the slave ships.
"In fact, [Gambians] felt that it was responsible for saving a lot of lives," he says. "The lore around that part of the world is that the first slave ships took people over, and huge numbers of people died. But by bringing over some cultural part of their lives, and having instruments on the ship, it kept a lot more people alive on the later journeys.
Recently, Bela Fleck visited the studios of KQED in San Francisco, and he brought along Malian kora master Toumani Diabate, one of the many African musicians who played on the new record. Between performances, they spoke with Renee Montagne.
The Ancient Banjo
In the liner notes to Throw Down Your Heart, there are photos of various musicians in Gambia playing banjolike string instruments. They're examples of the akonting, a folk lute and an ancestor to the modern banjo.
"The thing is, with the banjo, it's kind of a natural thing to create in different parts of the world, you know," Fleck says. "Taking a gourd and putting a skin over it and stretching strings over it — you see instruments like that in China; you see them in India. But once you get down to the banjo we play here, it's directly from West Africa.
"In Mali, you have the ngoni, which is a smaller version of the akonting. But for me, once it has a skin stretched over a gourd and strings over it, it's a banjo."
Fleck says that in certain parts of West Africa, people sometimes still perform the slaves' music on the akonting.
"When you hear the akonting music, to me it really sounds like the music of that time that was later played on the plantations, then gradually turned into bluegrass and old-time music," he says.
The Magical Kora
Like Bela Fleck, Toumani Diabate is also a virtuoso. His instrument is the kora, which he describes as a cross between a lute and a harp.
"You know, the story of the kora is original, and is my family histories [for] 71 generations: from father to son, father to son, father to son," Diabate says. "The kora was a gift from God to me."
Sitting facing the instrument, Diabate played a solo improvisation for the kora.
"When you play [it], it's like talking to a woman, you know?" he says. "The kora was played in the royal court, for the kings and the warriors. And normally the man plays and the woman sings. And he can be playing it for the weddings ... people join, people [are] happy. But it's a real spiritual instrument, and a magic one."
Though the kora is often played with Mali's own banjolike instrument, the ngoni, Fleck and Diabate tried their hand at a few duets.
"Well, the whole trip to Africa was like one test after another, trying to fit in with all of these different musical styles," Fleck says. "Certainly there are rules, but I was sort of immune — I had immunity because I wasn't supposed to know the rules. So anything I did I could get away with."