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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Bela Fleck, master of the banjo, set out a few years ago to explore the birthplace of his instrument, Africa. From Mali to the Gambia, he collected songs and stories and returned with an album's worth of material. Recently, Bela Fleck came into a studio and brought with him Mali's Toumani Diabate, one of the many African musicians who played on the new CD, "Throw Down Your Heart." That expression is used by people in Gambia. They say it 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.

"Throw Down Your Heart," it's a poetic and touching way of explaining some great loss and I'm wondering if you're just say, talking about the banjo, if that was an instrument that was allowed to be taken and played as that trip progressed and brought into the new world?

Mr. BELA FLECK (Musician): Yeah, well that was definitely exactly what we heard from the people in the Gambia. In fact, they felt that it was responsible for saving a lot of lives. And 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.

MONTAGNE: And I'm looking at the liner notes, you have photographs in here of course, and there is this instrument that looks quite a bit like a banjo.

Mr. FLECK: The akonting, you know, but the thing is with the banjo, it's kind of a natural thing to create in different parts of the world. You know, taking a gourd and putting a skin over it and then stretching strings over it. And you see instruments like that in China and you see them in India, but once you get down to the banjo that we play here is directly, you know, it's from West Africa. In Mali, you have the ngoni, which is, you know, a smaller version of the akonting. But to me, once it has a skin stretched over a gourd and strings over it, it's a banjo.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we pick one of these cuts and I'll let you do it.

Mr. FLECK: Well, the thing about the akonting is you can still hear the music, the slave music sometimes, there's people that play it and some of it was transcribed. And 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. So I'd say play a song from the Gambians, from the akonting.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Like Bela Fleck, Toumani Diabate is also a virtuoso. His instrument is the kora, which he brought into the studio. He describes it as a cross between a lute and a harp.

Mr. TOUMANI DIABATE (Virtuoso, kora player): You know, the story of the kora is original, and is my family histories from 71 generations: from father to son, father to son, father to son.

MONTAGNE: So we're talking hundreds and hundreds of years.

Mr. DIABATE: Yes, the kora was a gift from God to me.

MONTAGNE: Toumani Diabate, why don't you just play a few moments so that we can get a sense of the sound?

Mr. DIABATE: All right, no problem, just wait.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLECK: Sweet.

MONTAGNE: Now I could sit all day and listen to that. People won't be able to see this, but you are facing the kora.

Mr. DIABATE: When you play, it's like talking to your woman, you know. The kora was playing in the royal court, you know, for the king and the warriors. And normally, the man plays and the woman sings. And he can be, you know, playing it for the weddings and in the kora, you know, people join, and people happy. But it's a - it's a real spiritual instrument, and a magic one.

MONTAGNE: So classically, you might have put the kora together with the ngoni, the sort of original banjo, and maybe this would be a good time then to put the two of you together.

Mr. DIABATE: Okay.

Mr. FLECK: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: That was beautiful.

Mr. FLECK: Oh man, we were having fun playing together.

MONTAGNE: This, to you, is relevant to the sort of music that one might have heard in the early days when slaves first came to America. How about you, though, how hard was it for you to fit into that?

Mr. FLECK: Well, the whole trip to Africa was like one test after another, trying to fit in with all of these different musical styles. 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.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Toumani Diabate and Bela Fleck, thank you very much.

Mr. FLECK: Oh, thank you very much it was really…

MONTAGNE: It's extraordinary.

Mr. FLECK: …awesome.

Mr. DIABATE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate, or as they refer to each other in the studio, Mr. Banjo and Mr. Kora. Their CD is called "Throw Down your heart." You can hear their full studio performances plus cuts from the new album at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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