Bela Fleck has something of the Midas touch about him. Whether he's playing newgrass or jazz fusion, classical concerti or jam-band vamps, Fleck has a penchant for garnering the applause of critics and audiences alike. His latest frontier: Africa. For Throw Down Your Heart, the third in his "Tales from the Acoustic Planet" series, the banjoist sought to explore the origins of his instrument and find great musicians to work with, resulting in a documentary, CD and tour.
Fleck's project is ambitious. The record features top-caliber musicians from eight different African countries, including guitarist/vocalist Vusi Masahela, kora player Toumani Diabate and guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. Fleck has the chops to match them, and-to these educated but non-expert ears-mostly adopts their styles, fitting in rather than diluting their music.
One critique: other world music experimenters have sometimes delved deeply into one aspect of African music-for example, Ry Cooder's landmark one-on-ones with Ali Farka Toure, or Bill Frisell's integration of Boubacar Traore into a regular touring band. The catholic approach of Throw Down Your Heart first opens Fleck to accusations of cultural and musical pastichism, dabbling in a variety of forms but never engaging deeply with any. Second, it means the listener is never able to grasp on to any one form; instead, we get a vague "African" sound-whatever that means.
Perhaps that misses the point, though. As an exercise in discovering the roots of the banjo, the project is a success. And musically, it produces several truly transcendent moments. Nothing shines brighter than the sequence of the title track, a pastoral hymn performed with the Haruna Samake Trio and Bassekou Kouyate, followed by the anthemic confection "Thula Mama," with Vusi Mahlasela. It's great music, no matter where it comes from.
Duke Performances presents Bela Fleck with Vusi Mahlasela, Toumani Diabate, John Kitime, Anania Ngoliga, D'Gary and Mario Tuesday at 8 p.m. Tickets are sold out.