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    Throw Down Your Heart

    A trip leaves its journey behind

    American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck sets off through Africa in search of the roots of his instrument and instead discovers, well, the joy of music.


    At the start of "Throw Down Your Heart," a large-hearted documentary about banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck's travels to Africa in search of the "roots of the banjo," Béla is asked by an interviewer for NPR with a voice evocative of elevator music, "What is your dream for the trip? Is there something you want to do, accomplish, record?" It is the earnestness of Béla's answer, "I just want to make great music," that epitomizes why this film, by Sascha Paladino, is so worth watching. Though there is a stated purpose to the trip, to disassociate the banjo from its stereotype as a white southern instrument, it is Béla's delightful and subtle resistance to being catalogued in a familiar pattern that gives this film its particular force.

    Directed by: Sascha Paladino.
    Featuring: Béla Fleck.
    Edited by: Scott A. Burgess, Béla Fleck, Sascha Paladino.
    Sound editors: Matthew P. Hanson, David H. Price, Elmo Weber.

    Related links: Official site
    IFC Center
    323 Sixth Ave.
    (212) 924-7771

    The film charts Béla's travels through Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali as he performs, records and has "musical conversations" with a variety of African musicians. And while there are none of the structural touchstones we've come to expect from documentaries — no clear-cut journey or narrative arc — the film's charm rests in its ability to let the portraits of its talented and complex subjects, and their stories, speak for themselves. This is not, as some may expect, the portrait of an artist. It is, in fact, a portrait of many artists.

    "Throw Down Your Heart" opens in the village of Jinja in Uganda where we are introduced to Walusimbi Nsimbambi Haruna, a folk-musician. He introduces the viewer to the concept of music as a backbone to local community life in Africa. He says that when people lose loved ones, their crying sounds like singing. He takes Béla to the grave of his father in the backyard of his family home and asks Béla to place a stone in keeping with a local tradition. Haruna then sings a melody he wrote about his father while playing the thumb piano and, momentarily discomposed by a disquieting memory, stops playing until the memory passes.

    Throw Down Your Heart  
    As Béla moves on to Tanzania, both the music and personal interactions intensify. Béla's encounter with Anania Ngoliga, a thumb pianist, guitarist and singer, remains perhaps the most delicate and enchanting moments of the film. While Anania is not the most famous of the performers with whom Béla engages, he is perhaps the one with whom Béla seems to have the most natural musical connection. And Anania's charisma is, hands down, the most infecting. Introducing himself by song, sitting in the breeze in a loose yellow shirt and sunglasses, Anania exudes a coolness that could contend with that of any rock star. And Béla, too, seems instantly at ease in his presence. Though Anania's lyrics are of war and misery, they do not seem out of place. Béla's guide John Kitime explains how at one time, slaves were hanged in town or taken to a nearby shore to be sold and transported by slave boats to the Middle East. Through Anania, we learn of Gogo music (music from the Wagogo community in Tanzania). This is the music of oral tradition, whose lyrics about struggle are resonant with the social context in which they were born.

    In Tanzania, Béla also visits the Maasai (an East African tribe of cow herders), in search of the "weird guttural stuff they do." He captures the guttural stuff as well the young warriors in their red wool wraps doing a rhythmic tribal jumping dance, where a high powerful jump is demonstrative of the warrior's prowess and sometimes even enables a trance-like state.

    But it isn't until Béla gets to The Gambia that there is mention of this country being the rumored situs of the origin of the banjo. It is a little bit of a surprise, but a potentially unsatisfying moment for someone searching for the climactic point where the banjo, suddenly denuded of its southern cracker affectation, is laid bare for all to see in its true African glory. But, it is here that we are introduced to the akonting, a three-stringed instrument made from a half-gourd, hollowed, dried, and tightly fitted with an animal skin and a four-foot long neck, sometimes studded with rhinestones. And of all the African instruments exhibited thus far, this one certainly takes the cake, in look and sound, for that which most closely resembles the banjo. But, really, by this point, you've most likely lost your need to search for the path to the original banjo and are simply too engrossed in the music and the characters to care about the aha moment. And while its deep banjo connection is passed over with little fanfare, the akonting itself has a remarkable history. As explained by one of the members of the Jatta family, which is responsible for keeping this instrument alive, the akonting was once used as a means for "singing" to announce to the community that one had not been taken into slavery.

      Throw Down Your Heart
    When Béla enters Mali, the "crown jewel of music" in Africa, we're aware from the moment he is picked up by Oumou Sangare, one of Mali's foremost musicians whose black Lexus 4x4 is the only car on the road without a license plate, that this is indeed the leg of the trip with the most star-power. Béla admits that playing with the likes of Oumou and Djelimady Tounkara, a renowned guitarist and ngoni player (another string instrument that looks more like a ukulele than a banjo), made this trip the most exacting, musically.

    And Anania aside, the music produced in Mali is some of the most complex, startling and unnerving. Sitting on a leopard-print couch with Djelimady in his purple dashiki, Béla tries to decipher the combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs Djelimady employs to play a seemingly endless string of notes on his guitar without taking a breather.

    Throw Down Your Heart  
    And when Oumou sings "Worried songbird crying out in the forest ... for those of us who have no father," you listen in wonderment to the voice of this woman who at the age of ten started singing at weddings to support her abandoned mother and family.

    The naturalistic filmmaking by Sascha Paladino, the director of Nickelodeon's "Ni Hao, Kai-Lan," could not be more complementary to the film's mood. With his handheld camera work, and the shifts between low-angled shots of Anania and close-ups of Djelimady's deft fingerwork, Paladino captures the raw energy of the music while making an effort to keep the film soundly within the perspective of the subjects and taking his camera where the subjects would have him go. Paladino, who is Béla's younger brother, does not shy away from awkward moments but allows them to breathe comfortably, which imparts to the film a highly intimate feel, whether we're watching Béla's awe-inspiring instrumentation or his sometimes charmingly awkward encounters with his hosts, like the time he accidentally wishes Haruna's mother happy new year.

    While Sony was originally set to finance "Throw Down Your Heart," it pulled out due to the cost of filming, leaving Béla and Paladino to produce it themselves. It was a boon. They were able to make the film with a creative freedom that they otherwise might not have had. When the film was finished, they were offered the opportunity by Sony to remake it with a black Hollywood actor — Forrest Whitaker was one choice — with whom Béla would travel around Africa. Other suggestions by potential funders of the project included editing the film to fit within the framework of a "journey." But this didn't feel natural to Béla or Paladino, according to an interview they did with The Rumpus. As it turns out, the film is about more than Béla and his journey. It is as much about the way music and social context overlap, about the portraits of several African musicians and their families, and about the rare opportunities that slide open when musicians with different musical roots are brought together and surprise themselves with the music they make, an experience Béla likens to being in a candy store. Over a big Hollywood name and a "journey," I'll take candy — any day — by the carload.

    APRIL 24, 2009

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