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Throw Down Your Heart

Dir: Sascha Paladino

Rating: 3.5

Argot Pictures

97 Minutes

I expected Throw Down Your Heart to be a documentary for music history geeks. The subtitle, “Béla Fleck Brings the Banjo Back to Africa,” led me to expect an exploration of the relationship between the banjo and its African predecessors. The actual film, though, is something much different and much better. This is a documentary with two main points: a reassessment of life in Africa and an investigation of musical creativity. The title of the film suggests that the first may have been the filmmakers’ focus, but it’s the second that gives Throw Down Your Heart its heart and makes it a documentary worth watching.

Fleck travels to Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali to interact with local musicians, some of whom play instruments related to the banjo, and to record an album. Overtly, he wants to correct the perception that the banjo is an odd outgrowth of white southern American culture and show that it has much deeper roots. By extension, I imagine he wants to continue to send the message he has sent through his entire career – that the banjo is suited to much more than bluegrass music. He has been nominated for Grammies (a worthless honor, to be sure, but bear with me) in more categories than any other musician, including country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, and folk.

Throw Down Your Heart is effective in part because it is not a film about words. It doesn’t try to push you to a conclusion, for the most part, but simply shows you Fleck’s interaction with the African communities and musicians he visits. It conceals its editing choices artfully, creating the illusion that you’re simply watching Fleck wander into a town and begin playing with the local musicians. There are a few significant words that guide our understanding of the action, but they’re soon overwhelmed by sights and especially sounds. The first words we hear are from Walusimbi Nsimbambi Haruna talking about the banjo coming “back to Africa to play with its old folks.” A short while later, the film proper begins with Haruna lamenting that Westerners show only “negative thinking about Africa” and that “that is just a very small bit of what Africa is.” This clearly spells out one of the motives of the film: to show that Africa is much more than AIDS and civil war. We see a sense of community, a joy in living and a range of musical talents which, though they do not deny the poverty and suffering in Africa, counterpoint it by showing vibrant cultures and kinds of togetherness largely absent in the west. All this would be annoying if we were told, but beyond those few words it is images and music that carry the point. The other guiding words in the film are embodied in its title: “Throw Down Your Heart” is the translation of the name of a town in Tanzania from which slave ships sailed, mostly to the Middle East. Fleck’s translator explains it as meaning you will never see home again.

Evoking slavery in a film about an instrument popularly associated with white southern culture suggests a powerful political message, and “Throw Down Your Heart” as the title of a film about returning the banjo to its roots is an equally potent image. All these words suggest that the film is about confronting and overcoming the past. However, right after Haruna’s opening words we hear an NPR interview in which Fleck states his purpose: “I just want to make great music.”
As the film moves on, we see that this motive trumps the more explicit, pedantic messages.

This is not a film about the gulf between Africa and the West, but a film about music’s role in bringing people together. Parts of it remind me of the scene in John Sayles’ Matewan in which the West Virginia miners and the two “scab” communities, Italian and black miners, begin to play music together at night. The process by which Fleck fits his banjo into local musical traditions has little to do with historical claims about which instrument may have fathered the modern banjo, but everything to do with talented people who love music finding common ground and creating music together. On a second viewing, the opening images I describe above show not the difficult gulf between Fleck and Africa but the beginning of a jam session between unfamiliar musicians. Fleck plays with women, including one who plays an instrument traditionally reserved only for men, but little is said overtly about the status of women in various societies. It is left to the viewer to see that cultural divides exist and that they can be bridged.

Béla Fleck is often described as the greatest banjo player in the world, and his on-screen persona confirms both the grandeur and the goofiness of this title. Malian superstar Oumou Sangare describes him as “somebody who might have a hard time expressing himself with his mouth, but who can express himself perfectly with his fingers,” and this captures much of the success of the film. Fleck seems awkward and shy, sometimes overwhelmed by his surroundings, but his music always overcomes this. On banjo he is never hesitant, but he is also never dominant. Many of the musicians with whom he records seem to be his equal. Malian guitarist Djelimadi Tounkara blows him away with a technique Fleck has never seen, and Fleck seems entirely sincere when he says breathlessly “I need to understand.” Their interaction marks the high point of the film. Spread through five scenes we move from Fleck’s astonishment at Tounkara’s speed and fluidity to the gradual emergence of a song. Fleck’s analysis of Tounkara’s technique combines with halting attempts at finding the banjo lines that will work with his idiosyncratic guitar playing. The beauty of this film is watching and hearing the musicians finding their musical relationship. Fleck says of his work with Tanzanian musician Anania Ngoliga “it’s really natural to play with this guy and I’m playing stuff I wouldn’t normally play and it’s just happening by itself.” To Fleck this is among the great moments of his trip, but the great moments of the film are those in which playing stuff he wouldn’t normally play comes more slowly. This film is a wonderful portrait of creativity. All the cultural significance of the Westerner bringing the banjo back to Africa falls away in the face of the images of musicians, individually and in groups, absorbing one another’s ideas and creating great music.

by Bob McCarthy

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