This article was originally published as a cover story for Making Music magazine in August 2013
When some people think of the banjo, the deep South and a bluegrass twang come to mind, as well as a distinctly American image. Visions of front porches and claw-hammer style playing combine in this instrument that has roots that reach much deeper than Southern soil and much broader than bluegrass.
Béla Fleck, perhaps the most well-known banjo player on the planet, has taken all of this to heart and changed the way the world looks at his instrument. He’s pushed people to look forward as he’s challenged the five-stringed music maker to conquer genres spanning jazz fusion to classical.
Fleck even embarked on a journey to Africa where he studied the origins of the banjo, looking at instruments like the ngoni and kora. He also took it further, immersing the banjo into the African sound, learning from those with whom he played. He demonstrated repeatedly how clear the language of music can be and how much more there is to the banjo than the stereotypes strapped to its back.
Fleck, 54, remembers when his ears first perked thanks to the instrument that has since become his life. It was the music of the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, performed by the great Earl Scruggs that caught his attention. “I think it was the speed and impossible precision, combined with a funky soulfulness that make the knockout punch,” Fleck says. “I know an awful lot of banjo players who have had the exact same experience.”
Though Fleck experimented with other instruments, it was the banjo that struck a chord. He was 15 years old when his grandfather bought him a banjo at a garage sale in Upstate New York. That sealed the deal.
Fleck released his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, in 1979 and joined with mandolin player Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival in 1981. He released five more solo albums by 1988, and received a Grammy Award nomination for Drive. It was also around that time that the legendary Béla Fleck and The Flecktones took shape with Victor Wooten, Howard Levy, and Roy “Future Man” Wooten rounding out the group’s revolutionary sound. Fleck has been nominated for Grammy Awards in more categories than any other musician, and has collaborated with an impressive list of musicians. He’s even branched into film with Throw Down Your Heart (2009), which chronicles his journey to explore the African roots of the banjo.
“I loved the acoustic African music,” Fleck says of what inspired the film. “I had been finding out about it and wanted to jam with those musicians. I cloaked my desire in a historical fact-finding mission about the roots of the banjo.”
The result benefitted both inclinations. Fleck had the opportunity to expand his horizons and play with new musicians and the world benefited from a documentary that finally exposed a history that is often overlooked.
The ngoni (or n’goni) and kora are West African instruments with noticeable similarities to the banjo: strings lying over a gourd, wood or calabash body with dried animal skin stretched over it, and a wooden stick neck. Origins go as far back as 1352, but it is believed that the instruments traveled to North America with West African slaves.
“The banjo played a major part in the early days of jazz,” Fleck explains. “But its image was connected to the slave days.” White performers, often in blackface, sang about life on the plantation.
When guitar came into the picture, many black performers eagerly dropped the banjo and all that it symbolized. “Meanwhile, the white folks who played banjo had made it their own,” Fleck teaches. “So, it continued its evolution in old-time, country, and eventually bluegrass.”
In his studies, Fleck was able to reconnect the dots of the banjo’s sound and that of its relatives. He was also able to see how musicians like Bassekou Kouyate keep those ancestral instruments alive and prominent on the world stage.
Kouyate, a Malian performer and leader of the band, Ngoni ba, is internationally known for his music, which features variations of the ngoni instrument. Like different sizes of a saxophone—soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone—the ngoni comes in a variety of sizes, and when performed together, a powerful choral sound is produced.
But the unique and rich sounds that Fleck and his new-found musician friends created is just part of what the journey was about.
“It’s one of the most wonderful things about speaking the musical language,” Fleck says. “You don’t need to actually speak words to have a deep interaction with someone from another part of the world. I’ve seen it again and again.”
Those friendships blossomed into lasting musical partnerships for Fleck. Last year, he toured Europe with Grammy Award-winning Malian Wassoulou musician Oumou Sangare, and he hopes to undertake similar collaborations in the future.
Though the project was challenging at the time, Fleck feels he succeeded in finding a place for the banjo in African music. He notes that learning so much music every day, combined with the traveling and constant improvising in new settings, was difficult. But in the end, “I did find a pretty comfortable way to be myself and interact with African musicians and music,” he says. “And it seemed to work well pretty much from the start of the trip. That’s all I was really after.”
Bringing it Back Home
At the end of such a life-changing experience, the question is, how will it carry over from there? Fleck doesn’t believe the project changed his approach to music, but rather it gave him more tools.
He provides an example, “I had been intrigued by Marcus Robert’s piano playing since I first heard him in Wynton Marsalis’s great group of the 1980s. I connected to his rhythmic complexity and depth, and was amazed by the musical concepts that spilled naturally out of his improvisations. He was on my bucket list of people I’d love to spend time around and soak up things from. He and I got together and made an album which puts me smack in the middle of a very traditionally based jazz piano trio.”
Fleck calls the rewarding result “immersion therapy in jazz culture” and notes that, even though the Flecktones play the jazz circuit, this dip into traditional jazz is reminiscent of his experience in Africa. “In some ways, playing with these guys is the same for me as going to Africa or India to play with the musicians there, or working with classical musicians,” he says. “It’s about immersion and coming out on the other end with new understandings.”
In addition to working with the Marcus Roberts Trio and performing as a duo with his wife, Abigail Washburn, Fleck is composing classical music. He premiered his first banjo concerto with the Nashville Symphony in 2011, and followed with a banjo quintet piece. In August, he’ll release an album with both. He’ll tour with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and perform with orchestral groups in the next year. He also has plans to reunite with the legendary Chick Corea, “a very special honor and challenge,” Fleck says.
For someone who has immersed himself in such a wide range of genres and cultures, there’s no doubt that Fleck will continue to explore new territory with his banjo, creating exceptional music along the way.
“For me it was about curiosity,” he says. “I wanted to know how different kinds of music worked. When I first heard jazz and loved it, I wasn’t going to find an instrument that I was allowed to play it on, I was going to play it on my instrument. My preference for the sound of the banjo as my voice came first. The music I’d play would have to fit it.”