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Award-Winning Musician Bela Fleck Traces Roots of Banjo


When most people hear the distinctive sounds of a banjo, they usually associate the music with the rural and mountain cultures of the southeastern United States - places like North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and the Appalachian Mountain region. Most people think the banjo originated in those parts. That's what Bela Fleck thought, too.

The New York-born musician has been playing the banjo for 35 years, and he has spent considerable time during that long relationship delving into the instrument's surprising history and origins.

"Because the banjo is my instrument, I want the whole story," says Fleck, who is recognized as one of the world's best banjo players.

What Fleck learned is that contrary to popular notions, the banjo did not originate in America.

Fleck says the more he played the banjo, the more he would hear people say, "Well, the banjo really comes from Africa, originally. And the slaves brought the banjo over - or something like the banjo - and then gradually it evolved into this instrument that we call the American banjo."

Fleck takes his banjo to Africa

To check out these stories himself, the Grammy winner traveled to Africa - not only to explore the banjo's roots but also to meet - and play - with local African banjo players.

"West Africa is where you really see things like banjos; East Africa, not so much," he says.

Examples of banjos in West Africa include the halam, the ngoni and the akonting, he says.

"It's the most natural thing in the world to take a gourd, put a skin over the top and run some strings over that."

Fleck says the African akonting is played today in the same style - called "claw hammer" - that African slaves used when they first brought it with them to North America beginning in the 1600s.

"The music they were playing was very reminiscent of what I understand the slave music to sound like; stuff that they were playing on the plantations. So, I was convinced that there is a direct line of some kind going on there."

Magical moments jamming with local musicians

Fleck says one of the highlights of his trip was stopping in each place long enough to play with popular local musicians - each of whom had their own version of aboriginal banjo. These informal gatherings resulted in lively, spontaneous jam sessions.

"I chose people that I thought were really wonderful and that I thought I could play with. But in some cases, I just dove in head first, and I had no chance to prepare, and some of those things ended up being magical."

One of those magical moments came when Fleck played with Malian singer and international superstar, Oumou Sangare.

"That's the wonderful thing. When musicians are at a certain level, magical things start to happen when you put people together."

Deep-rooted connections

Fleck says his time in Africa gave him a better understanding of the connection between African music and various forms of American music in which the banjo plays a role, from bluegrass to jazz.

The banjo, says Fleck, can be found in much of early American music - in early jazz music, for example, such as the kind for which renowned musician Louis Armstrong is famous. It can also be found in minstrel music and in big banjo orchestras of the late 1800s.

Fleck says discovering the cross-cultural landscape of the banjo also helped him figure out where he fits in as a musician.

"I'm just a banjo player who loves music and who's curious. To think of it simply as a southern, white instrument is only looking at a tiny piece of the picture of what the banjo is."

In all, Fleck spent five weeks in Africa visiting Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali. His experiences are chronicled in a new CD called Throw Down Your Heart - the third volume in Fleck's renowned Tales From the Acoustic Planet series - and in an award-winning film of the same name, produced and directed by his half-brother, filmmaker Sascha Paladino.

Fleck says his trip to the African heart of the banjo has reinforced his desire to continue playing with other popular musicians from around the world.

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