Fleckish, part two

by zunguzungu

Watching Toumani and Bela play together was a singular experience, and as with all singularities, comparisons and metaphors inevitably fail to capture its essential quality. Can’t wait until tomorrow, when I see them again. Yeah, that’s right; that’s how I roll.

I was, however, struck by this NY Times review of the album, which frames the album as a mix of “fieldwork” and professionalism: “His journey resembled fieldwork,” Nate Chinen writes, “in the sense that he was traveling with a recording engineer and film crew. But he also had his banjo and an urge to bridge musical divides.”

I find this an interesting formulation. The obvious point that the writer has instant recourse to the “fieldwork” paradigm because it’s Africa we’re talking about: when a white person goes to Africa with recording equipment, then obviously the documentary isn’t about him (as it was when they made a documentary about Fleck and Edgar Meyer). It can only be about the natives, because it is their ontological qualityto be seen. If there are natives in the picture, in other words, it is towards their being seen that the energy of recording must have been turned. At the same time, those natives who have found their way into studios (or to the US) are no longer natives, a distinction between those African musicians who are aligned with a place (defined as a “field”) and those who have overcome their placed-ness via work, having left their villages existentially by finding their way to studios in Mali or Nashville

As he writes: “Two imploring songs with Ms. Sangare and her band, recorded at a studio in Mali, exude a serene professionalism…a similar undercurrent runs through one track with the guitarist Afel Bocum, and a handful that Mr. Fleck recorded in the United States with the South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela and the Madagascan guitarist D’Gary.”

Yet while the reviewer notes this “serene professionalism” that runs through these studio recordings, he also finds that “the heart of the album is the field material.” Hearts and cameras, serenity versus attachment. And Fleck himself manages to escape the “fieldworker” paradigm precisely to the extent that, as a banjo player (his profession), he “works respectfully, learning and adapting, trusting sameness over difference,” the extent to which music allows him to bridge that ontological distinction between cold, sterile science and the heart.

The banjo, as Fleck has joked before, is the instrument of love. But, ironically, the title track (“Throw Down Your Heart”) was written before Fleck even touched down. Not that that matters, of course; it isn’t visiting Bagamoyo that makes you feel the depth of meaning behind those words. All you see is an old slave castle. But it’s funny the boxes that musicians get put into. I love Fleck’s work because his banjo makes words I’ve never heard before, and puts them into sentences that I’ve never heard anyone else articulate. And he is an explorer, as this trip illustrates; there was grey in his hair, and what kind of grey-haired banjo player decides to go to Gambia, Mali, Uganda and Tanzania to record music (as in the first track on the album) with the waitresses from some random restaurant? But it wasn’t fieldwork that made him do it, or the desire to open up the heart of African darkness; he did it because the music they made was good. Those ladies can sing.

At the concert, some drunk asked Bela to tell how he came to love the banjo. Fleck was on stage alone, waiting for Toumani, and had already been chit-chatting, so he could neither play nor escape. His answer was a good one (though you could see a little irritation in his eye): “I thought everyone loved the banjo from birth,” he said. And then Toumani came on and played with him, and there was no small amount of joy in his eyes too, not because Bela played the banjo and he played the kora and because there’s something magical about that (though there was), but because it sounded good, because they sang.