Film Review #199: Throw Down Your Heart
Director: Saschia Paladino
Cast: Béla Fleck, Oumou Sangare, Anania Ngoliga
When violinist Itzhak Perlman decided to explore the roots of Eastern European Jewish music – that amalgam of dance, folk song and liturgy that we know broadly as klezmer, traced from Yiddish-speaking enclaves among the Rumanian, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Greek, Turkish and Rom communities between the Baltic and Black Seas, violently scattered by World War II, transplanted to the Lower East Side where it met swing, flowering in popularity well beyond the Catskills since the 70s – he took a camera crew. The resulting documentary was In the Fiddler’s House (1995). Along the way, Perlman learned from masters of this vernacular – at a festival in Poland, the Klezmatics advised him to play more “slinky” – and the classical concert virtuoso memorably came to realize that conventional Western notation could not begin to capture and convey the tonal richness and rhythmic nuances of that music.
In 2005 the banjo player Béla Fleck took a year off from his group The Flecktones and embarked on a similar journey to the African nations of Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and through Senegal to Mali with his half-brother, filmmaker Saschia Paladino, and a small crew in a frequently over-heating van. Paladino had already made a short film in 2004 with Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer (Obstinato: Making Music for Two), Fleck had done extensive international touring and just since 2002 has appeared in at least half a dozen concert DVDs.
But Fleck has long believed the banjo was originally a West African instrument that slaves brought to the US, developed because drumming was forbidden on plantations and then appropriated by white musicians. The film’s title comes from the exclamation – “Bwada moyo!” – that translator John Kitime tells Fleck captured Africans made when they saw the ships in slave ports and understood they would never go home.
Fleck wanted also to reintroduce the modern banjo to African musicians and he wanted, mightily, to make music with them. Many of this film’s most memorable moments concern these sessions. Whether in remote villages with musicians whom Paladino only allowed Fleck to meet when the camera was rolling, or with cosmopolitan recording artists, we watch patient and accomplished musicians instruct the diffident 11-time Grammy winner. In Tanzania he plays with Anania Ngoliga, a blind thumb pianist. In Mali, there’s kora master Toumani Diabate, and Lexus SUV-driving diva Oumou Sangare, with whom Fleck records a haunting track called “The Worried Songbird.” He jams with Madagascar's guitarist D’Gary. He encounters families of musicians like the Jattas – “I smell banjo,” he says before meeting this clan – and what seem like clear banjo forerunners. This sparingly subtitled film has six languages – besides English, there's Lusogan, Swahili, Jola, Bambarra and French – or perhaps, if you go by the moments most moving for audience and musicians alike, just the one.
Central New Yorkers know Fleck well. Besides the air time he gets on Eric Cohen’s WAER jazz show (88.3 FM), he’s performed at Syracuse Jazz Fest three times. With the Flecktones, he capped off the first night of the 25th anniversary fest in 2007. In 2005 he played with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. And Russ Tarby, now the City Eagle’s music columnist, remembers introducing Fleck in 1996 when Jazz Fest was still held downtown in Clinton Square. With this year’s Jazz Fest just two weeks off, it’s a good time to see this film.
Next week you can do that in Ithaca, where the film screens three evenings at Cornell Cinema. Better yet, Laura Austin says Redhouse Arts Center might include the film in a series of music documentaries they will put together from a grant that’s just come through.
Throw Down Tour Heart, which first screened at San Francisco’s Roxy in March and has won a number of festival awards, had a conventional theatrical release on April 24th at IFC in New York City and last week in Los Angeles. But it’s also done a steady, under-the-radar business well outside the multiplexes, with almost 30 more short runs now booked across the country. Fleck and/or Paladino show up for talk-backs after some of these, and Fleck continues U.S. concerts all summer with combinations of half a dozen musicians from the film. (He’ll also be nearby in Utica on September 30th playing with Edgar Meyer and classical Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain).
Last weekend in Brooklyn, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, about whom another documentary is forthcoming for US theatrical release this month (Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love), opened the ten-day Muslim Voices Festival with a sold-out concert. And in DC, Mali’s guitarist Amadou Bagayoko and singer Mariam Doumbia – they are married and perform together – this week told interviewers they are quite comfortable that New York’s white indie bands like Vampire Weekend, Yeasayers, Harlem Shakes and Dirty Projectors are influenced by African music because their own show, “Welcome to Mali,” is after all “globalist.” So Fleck is right on time.
A version of this review appears in the June 11, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in the regular film column "Make it Snappy." Syracuse Jazz Fest runs June 26-27 at Onondaga Community College. Throw Down Your Heart screens next week at Cornell Cinema, Willard Straight Hall in Ithaca (8:00 PM on Monday & Wednesday, June 15 & 17, 7:30 PM on Friday, June 19.) Rounder released the soundtrack CD in March; audio samples and MP3 downloads of all 18 tracks at amazon.com. The movie DVD releases next fall. Keep track of screenings for the movie at www.throwdownyourheart.com. Find In the Fiddler’s House on-line in VHS and since 2006 on DVD.