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Posted October 1, 2010
I have been a fan of banjo-player Bela Fleck since I first saw the New Grass Revival in 1986. Over the years, he has explored myriad forms of music with the banjo, from breakdowns to jazz and beyond. This wonderful documentary recounts his recent trip to Africa where he seeks the ancestors of his instrument. He visits several countries and encounters some of the most amazing musicians whom you have probably never heard of: the film is full of great performances and interviews that really let you into their lives.
Particularly memorable is the village that has a giant marimba, made of tuned logs over a pit that is long enough to allow many players at once: the collective percussion builds and builds until it is totally mesmerizing. Another scene shows a group of women singing as they work, and you come to realize that music and rhythm are essential parts of their everyday lives.
As the film progresses you are introduced to a number of musicians who are well known locally, and when they and Bela play together it is often magical. Bela comes across as very low-key and almost shy - one singer comments that he might not say a lot with words, but once he starts to play, his music is the best form of communication. The film-maker happens to be Bela's much younger half brother, and he proves to be a talented and sensitive director.
I was especially struck by the origin of the title - it is explained at a coastal area where natives captured for slavery arrived from the interior. Once they saw the ocean, they knew what their fate would be: a long voyage, never seeing their homes again - no wonder they "threw down their hearts" in despair. But this sadness is fleeting - mostly what you remember of the people from this film is their incredible warmth and vitality. As one musician notes early on, Africa offers a lot more than the bad news so often associated with it. The beautiful music and engaging performers from this film certainly offer testimony to his statement. And there are some touches of humor as well, such as when Bela performs at a club with a band and an admiring customer comes up and tucks some money in his shirt.
In all, I strongly recommend this film to all Bela Fleck fans, as well as to anyone who is interested in learning more about the incredible music of Africa.
The DVD also includes extra footage and performances.
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