Sarasota Film Festival: Throw Down Your Heart

Throw Down Your Heart is a documentary about Béla Fleck and his trip through parts of Africa in 2005 in search of the ancestor of the modern banjo. He goes to The Gambia and Mali on the west coast and Tanzania and Uganda on the southeast coast, meeting up with African musicians from the renowned to the local to collaborate. The result is some amazing musical performances and a few illuminating lessons on African music and history.

In Uganda he meets with a couple of thumb piano players. The first shows raw emotion as he sings of losing his father and introduces him to a group that plays a giant balafon (a type of marimba) while the entire village joins in with the music. The second player is the only female thumb piano player in all of Uganda, and a great singer as well.

The name of the former slave port he visits in Tanzania translates to "throw down your heart," so titled because the slaves that were brought there from the inner continent found it so incredibly beautiful and terrifying they imagined they would never again feel as much emotion so they might as well throw down their heart. Here he meets with Anania Ngoliga, a blind but masterful and famous thumb piano player, and they combine their talents brilliantly.

In The Gambia and especially Bamako, Mali he meets with the area's convergence of musical talent on par with what you might find here in Nashville or New York. (On a side note a documentary about trial actually titled Bamako came out in 2006 and features performances by local musicians. I haven't seen it but I've heard some the music featured and it is very good.) Fleck finds the banjo's likely ancestor in The Gambia, the akonting, a three stringed fretless instrument made of a sand-filled gourd and a long pole neck. He meets with another prolific musician, Jesus Jah Jarju, who plays a small instrument similar to the banjo. In Mali he is brought into the entourage of his singer friend Ami Sacko, a celebrity famous for her rapturous voice. Here he meets the widest variety of collaborators, some of whom posses talent that can even intimidate Fleck.

Béla Fleck attended the screening, took questions and even performed afterwards. He said they filmed over 200 hours, including many performances not featured, but getting the sound and film to match and flow was difficult so they had to cut certain parts (including a few funny bits with Anania that ran during the credits) to get down to 90 minutes. When asked about his preparation he said he made himself familiar with as much of the music as he could ahead of time and practiced furiously, both before the trip and day and night while in the continent. They made several recordings and Fleck hopes to release an album of the results some time next year. As for the film he said it probably is not in its final form, and depending on how things pan out it might be turned into a television series (PBS, I'm guessing).

The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and will be coming to the Nashville Film Festival this month and the Silverdocs Film Festival in Maryland this June. If you are a fan of musical performance and get a chance to watch it, go damnit! Otherwise keep an eye out for the album, the music is very cool.

(Karina Longworth did a good review from SFF as well.)


Anonymous said...

When/where can I see it?