Saturday, May 22, 2010

BELA FLECK - Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder)

When considering past western artists’ team-ups with African musicians, it’s hard to think of a better example of how to tap into the collaborative nature of African music than that displayed on this addictive album by American banjo player Béla Fleck.
Readers may already be aware of the impressive continental spread of this part-field recording, part-studio, part-concert work which, despite lacking any logic in its sequencing, avoids the trap of becoming a hotch-potch of intermittently coherent aural sketches that certain big-name pop stars have been wont to deliver in the past. Indeed the broad palette and rambling geography only seems to underline the impressive chameleon-like nature of Fleck’s fretwork. Whether trading sprightly acoustic riffs with Madagascan guitarist D’Gary, providing sympathetically sparse accompaniment to Oumou Sangaré’s gorgeous rendition of Djorolen, adding subtle bluegrass flavours to the closing moments of the exultant stop-you-in-your-tracks opening song by Uganda’s Nakisenyi Women’s Group or fighting for space with ghostly giant marimbas, buzzy bowed lyres and spiritual choirs, Fleck manages to flavour the whole enterprise with a desire to adapt to those around him rather than impose his own musical ideas. And the plucked pursuit of the crazy melodies produced by the almost comically elastic falsetto of blind Tanzanian thumb pianist Anania is pure innocent delight - virtuosos at play!
In keeping with the spirit of the enterprise, Throw Down Your Heart comprises mostly traditional fare or that written by the local artists. The title track and D’Gary Jam are the exceptions, the latter providing the only really jarring note. A six-minute, multi-tracked, overly guest-appearanced jam that, despite its title, feels mannered alongside the joyous tone of the rest of the album. Béla should hold off from his threat to unleash a 22-minute version of this rather contrived number – he could probably cover at least a couple more countries in that time to far better effect. A small wrinkle in an otherwise excellent soundtrack.

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