Watching Bela Fleck the other day, for the first time, hit me with some anxiety of influence. For obvious reasons: I took up the mandolin in college because I loved the music Sam Bush played (with Fleck), but I didn’t take up the banjo then because I wasn’t worthy, in the Wayne and Garth meeting Alice Cooper sense. That’s not really comic exaggeration; I knew I would never be good enough to defile the banjo with my shortcomings, and I didn’t want to try.
When I started playing the banjo in November, I was quick to decide I wouldn’t try to imitate him. Bela plays with fingerpicks, but I basically play the guitar on the banjo, and although I use a three finger style like the grassers, the lack of attack that the picks give you transforms the sound, makes it much softer, more of a drone than the Scruggs style gatling gun. Someone once described the Scruggs style banjo as being like one of those tests they use to determine color blindness; the melody jumps out at you out of a barrage of identical notes and just as quickly disappears as the sound decays. That’s not really how my playing sounds at all; the softness of touch and the lack of snap makes the notes seem more sustained – an illusion produced by the initial attack’s failure to overshadow its long tail – and instead of the repetitive (in a good way) patterns you get by practicing those rolls over and over again, my rolls are much slower and more legibly melodic. I sort of like the idea, too, that my playing sounds more like the various plucked African instruments than their American descendants, which Bassekou Kouyate so evocatively observed to have “had machines put on them.”
These last two concerts, though, for the first time, I saw and heard Bela on the banjo through the lens of the blasphemy of my own playing. Lamentations.
Such exaggerated humility, of course, is a symptom of pride. And there is something weird about comparing myself – after my proud four months – to someone who has not only been playing professionally for as long as I’ve been alive, but who is basically without peer as a musician anyway. There are no other banjo players like him; or, rather, those who are similar cannot help but be imitators on some level. Or maybe this is a totally subjective statement, in which case I offer it to you in as an expression of my subjectivity. When I listen to the banjo, I hear three kinds of musicians: Virgils to his Dante, Bela Fleck, and people who imitate Bela Fleck but who are hindered by the tragedy of not being him.
I’m starting to notice that not using a thumb pick prevents me from using my thumb in the way Bela does; he can pick both up and down with his thumbpick, while I can only pluck in one direction. Plus, holding my hand the way I’ve become accustomed to doing pretty much confines me to the short fifth string (a high drone) or as a kind of non-moving bass note on the lowest string. Bela’s style is sort of based around the kind of single-note stuff on the banjo that the thumb’s mobility allows him to do (and in the way he integrates this single-note stuff into the larger banjo idiom of Scruggs and others) but putting a melodic jazz aesthetic into the banjo’s range starts off with the ability to make the banjo sing through a solo voice, which, in turn, seems to begin with the thumb.
So my dilemma is this: do I put a pick on my thumb? Let me say again, in all seriousness: I’m a little afraid of trying to play like him, both because I’ll fail and because if I see better what it is that he does, if it’s shorn of its mystifying veil, it will cease to represent whatever it represents for me now. But if I put those picks on, I feel like I’ll be beset by that choice, and confronted by a part of my personality that I’m not especially proud of (if not exactly ashamed of), but which I can, at the moment, easily ignore. If I put that pick on my thumb, maybe I won’t have that luxury any more.
There’s a moment in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day when Bim suddenly realizes that while she had always been irritated by her brother’s intellectual pretensions, thinking him an elitist jackass, she suddenly sees that his love of Urdu poetry had never been that at all, that it was actually an homage paid to a thing he loved, and as such, a desire not to replicate or supercede but to participate. And what she had condemned as his failure to meet or surpass the standards of his betters (and the arrogance of his desire to do so), she suddenly saw as nothing so romantic at all: having never hoped to transcend the poets he loved, he simply wanted to move closer to them.
Poetry is a poor metaphor for describing this kind of love, which is why the Byronic romantic ideal eventually becomes the book’s figure for what Bim thinks is wrong, but turns out not to be: the need to express the self in distinction from others. Music is a better metaphor, I think, or maybe dance… In that sense, while I admire the implausible extent to which Bela always sounds like himself, what was most striking about the Bela who went to Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali was that he hardly sounds like himself at all. On that CD, in fact, you don’t hear the Bela who invented half the licks in his reportoire, you hear a master accompanist, a musical voice that learns how to dance first and foremost out of the profundity of its respect for the terrain on which it walks. As he put it, “I wanted to put the modern banjo in their music and make it sound like it belonged — not use them for a backup band but look for a home. Some places I can blow my brains out like with Djelimany Tounkara, the hot guitar player, or with Anania, the blind thumb piano player. But other places I could just be the backbone or look for a rhythmic place to fit in. my goal is to make it sound like it belongs. Doesn’t sound like much as a mission statement, but that’s everything I do.”
Which is why I like so much the fact that Sascha didn’t want to spotlight his brother’s trip as a kind of vision quest and why the idea of fieldwork struck me as not quite right; the point was that music could bring people together, could put a banjo and a Kora in the same room, in the same song, in the same pocket, and that that was the thing itself. So maybe, like Anita Desai’s narrator, the way to do this isn’t to worry about it at all. Maybe the very fact of being worried about it is a symptom of the thing I actually need to worry about, the fact that I think there’s even a dilemma in the first place. Thumb pick or no thumb pick, the question is one of relation, not of comparison, or rather, what makes music work is not so much the romantic assertion of melodic individualism but the harmony of company, of conversation, and of chords.e