Film Review: Throw Down Your Heart

Roll up, roll up, for Béla Fleck’s harmonious heritage tour, satisfaction (more or less) guaranteed.

A number of Western musicians, most famously Paul Simon, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, have embraced what’s sometimes called world beat, a one-size-fits-all label that accommodates Latin, African, Arabic, even Appalachian genres, but no one seems better suited to the task than Béla Fleck. The banjo virtuoso has spent 30 years extending his instrument’s range from bluegrass to jazz, pop and classical forms, the last 20 working with his band the Flecktones, in the process winning 11 Grammys (and 27 nominations) in more categories than any other musician in the history of the awards. What could be more obvious than his idea to tour Africa with his five-string Deering to trace the lineage of the banjo to its roots—except that most people associate the instrument with the Ozarks, not Kilimanjaro.

As we learn in the documentary Throw Down Your Heart, the banjo likely evolved from the akonting, a hide-covered gourd with three strings attached to a pole, brought by enslaved Africans to America. “Throw down your heart” is a translation of the Kiswahili word “Bagamoyo,” the name of the port in Tanzania where natives, captured inland, were loaded onto ships as chattel.

Fleck stops in Tanzania, Uganda, Mali and The Gambia, jamming with local musicians such as the Muwewesu Xylophone Group, who perform on a 12-foot marimba assembled over an open pit—more than a half-dozen men play the handmade behemoth simultaneously—as well as international stars such as Oumou Sangaré, who records a moving duet with Fleck in a sound studio in Bamako. The film, whose screenings are sponsored by the NEA and associated nonprofits, celebrates cultural exchange, understanding and collaboration, to borrow a phrase from the American Film Institute; that is to say, Throw Down Your Heart was made to win prizes at international festivals, and has. Paradoxically, viewers can’t help notice that Fleck and his small entourage travel with the usual accoutrements—Apple computers, Sony headphones and a spring-green Range Rover—more evidence that hipster corporations have become as politically correct as art foundations.

The saving grace of Throw Down Your Heart is Fleck himself, who transcends the contrived unconventionality of the project to emanate a genuine warmth and camaraderie. This extraordinary performer remains shy, soft-spoken, simpatico, as unpretentious as he is talented. One of the movie’s more interesting segments captures him struggling to keep up with guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, improvising technique on his banjo like a student taking a master class. Singer Sangaré elsewhere observes that Fleck has a hard time expressing himself with words, but he makes up for that with his fingers. It’s refreshing to watch a superstar willing to play second banana in more ways than one.

Fleck’s low-key approach has its drawback. Throw Down Your Heart lacks drama (a van overheats, a banjo loses a screw, a group of Maasai men stage an impromptu dance), but watching native musicians performing on unfamiliar instruments like the kalimba (a plucked “thumb piano”) and the n’goni (an oblong banjo) is fascinating: We’ve heard the sounds on Afro-pop tracks but rarely see how they’re made. Still, this more than 90-minute documentary has few “full” performances and little travelogue footage of interest; the documentary, at its best, offers glimpses into the creative process, along with brief portraits of little-known African performers.

Fleck has released a CD by the same name as the film that includes songs not in the movie or on the companion DVD; the documentary (directed by Fleck’s half-brother, Sascha Paladino) might easily have been condensed and issued on one CD-DVD disk, putting the music first, where it should be, with video providing a window into Fleck’s unique style and latest collaboration.