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American Musician Traces Roots of the Banjo to Africa

Most people relate the banjo to bluegrass music in the southern United States. But banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck had a different idea when he decided to look into the instrument’s roots. In a new documentary showing in theaters, Fleck and his young brother, filmmaker Sascha Paladino, visit a number of African countries searching for the roots of the banjo. Their journey took them through West and East Africa as they visited The Gambia, Mali, Tanzania, and Uganda. In these countries Fleck, a Grammy-winning artist, meets and plays with local musicians, including the famous Malian artist Oumu Sangare.

Preliminary research into the origins of the banjo point to 17th century West African slaves, who brought the instrument to the new world. On the ships, the music provided a respite from their ordeal.

Sascha says that the title of their documentary, Throw Down Your Heart , was taken from the English translation of the name of a town in Tanzania known as Bagamoyo, a former port for ships transporting slaves from East Africa. The town earned the name because slaves knew their fates once they saw the ocean: “The sea was the place,” he says, “where they were forced to give up their lives and loved ones and throw down their hearts in surrender to the coming ordeal.”

Sascha says in North America, that authentic sound is present but diluted in popular genres like blue grass and jazz.

The movie captures the sometimes intense collaboration of artists from different backgrounds, using variation of the banjo and fusing their musical styles and culture.