This time last year I was convinced I could teach myself to play the banjo. I had a brand new instrument (a 22 fret Dean Backwoods 3), a fair amount of dexterity, and several musician friends who were willing to learn some old-timey cover songs. Then I broke a finger. I'm not particularly proud of my progress since, and quite honestly, I've lacked inspiration. It turns out that a film recommendation from a friend was all I really needed.
Currently touring small theaters in the US and Canada, Throw Down Your Heart is a feature documentary that follows acclaimed performer and recording artist Béla Fleck through Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali as he seeks to learn something about his chosen instrument's continent of origin. Speaking with NPR at one point, he explains his motivation for making the five week trek around Africa: "I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from because it's been associated so much with a white Southern stereotype. A lot of people in the United States don't realize that the banjo is an African instrument."
I wish the director, Sascha Paladino, had included an interview with a musicologist, or perhaps just delved deeper into the folk history of the ngoni or the akonting (both thought to be closely related to a chordophone more familiar to American ears), and I could quibble over some of the edits, but taken as a whole, Throw Down Your Heart is a joyous and poignant film crammed with incredible musical collaborations. It's absolutely worth seeing on a big screen now, or at home this fall once the DVD is released. As for my inspiration, I walked out of the IFC Center on Sunday night with conflicting desires: should I research airfare to Dar es Salaam, order a copy of The Zawose Family's debut album, or simply go home and tune my banjo?
Photo of Béla Fleck © Argot Pictures 2008. All rights reserved.