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RENE MONTAGNE, host:
For our series, This I Believe, we hear today from banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. He's won eight Grammys for his jazzy, sometimes haunting style of playing.
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MONTAGNE: It's about as far away as you can get from the brassy sound most people associate with the banjo. Bela Fleck's latest album with his band, The Flecktones, is called The Hidden Land.
Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.
JAY ALLISON: When artists write for our series, they tend toward a belief in the creative spirit. This is true for Bela Fleck too, but he partially derives his belief from his grandfather, who applied his creativity to things other than art, things like plumbing.
No matter, says Fleck. Personal inventiveness is what's important to him.
Here is Bela Fleck with his essay for This I Believe.
Mr. BELA FLECK (Musician): I believe in figuring out my own way to do things. This approach can yield great results, but it's got its negative sides.
Much of my individualistic, boneheaded nature comes from my grandfather. Opa grew up in New York's rough and tumble Lower East Side, didn't go to college, but owned and ran two successful businesses, a restaurant and a car wash. He figured out what he wanted to do and how to do it without studying a manual. He used his own creativity to solve problems as they came up.
After he died, realtors tried to sell his home. They discovered he had devised his own way of hooking up the septic system. Nobody could figure out how it worked, so it couldn't pass codes. But it did work and for many years beyond his time.
Sometimes I wonder if my banjo playing would pass codes. I didn't learn to play bluegrass, classical music or jazz in school. I took banjo lessons from some of the best. But my breakthrough moments always seemed to come when I left the lesson plans.
I remember seeing jazz great Chick Corea when I was 17. There was a moment of revelation when I realized that all the notes he was playing had to exist on my banjo. I went home and stayed up most of the night, figuring out the scales, modes and arpeggios for myself, mapping out the banjo fingerboard in my own way.
When I perform with my own group, my map of the banjo is all I need. But when I move into more conventional jazz or classical situations, I don't always have the tools to fit in. I can barely read music. I don't thoroughly understand the conventions of each tradition, and I'm not sure how to voice jazz chords, which notes to leave out, how the scales work - all the rhythmic concepts.
I heard that when George Gershwin wanted to study harmony from Ravel, he was advised against it. Ravel felt that Gershwin would obliterate the very thing that made him special by learning conventional approaches to rhythm and harmony. I'd like to think that the same is true for me, but I'm not convinced. I worry that my approach might not be built on a strong enough musical foundation.
It's this fear that allows me no rest in my musical pursuits. When I'm at work, whether it's writing, practicing, editing, mixing CDs, I obsess. To say that I'm picky is an understatement. Delegating is pretty much impossible. I can be downright controlling. I have to get everything just right. Then one day the intensity disappears. This usually means the project is done.
My grandfather didn't seem to worry that he was making it up as he went along, and I try not to either. I believe in living with and giving into my obsessive side when it serves the music.
I believe in doing things my own way, and I want them to last, just like my grandfather's plumbing.
ALLISON: Bela Fleck with his essay for This I Believe, recorded in our studio on Cape Cod, where we produce this series.
After he finished reading, Fleck played this song he wrote for his grandfather, who also gave Fleck his first banjo.
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ALLISON: To see all the essays in our series, or to submit one of your own, visit npr.org.
For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.
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