Directed by Sascha Paladino, Throw Down Your Heart (2008) follows world-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck on his journey through Africa to connect with the banjo’s origins through jam sessions and conversations with local musicians. It’s full of intercultural exchanges that result in creative stylistic fusions that are amazingly seamless. It’s thrilling to hear the banjo so at home outside the US! Here’s the trailer:
Most people associate the banjo with white people from the American South, but it actually evolved from the akonting, a hide-covered gourd instrument from Gambia with three strings attached to a pole, brought to America by enslaved Africans. Among the many musical artists Fleck meets is the Jatta Family, a Gambian troupe dedicated to preserving akonting music in Africa.
The title of the documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, is a translation of the Swahili word Bagamoyo, the name of a trading port along the East African coast. According to John Kitime, Fleck’s guide and translator, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Tanzanians were captured inland and brought to the eastern shores for “export” to the Middle East as slaves. They knew that once they saw the Indian Ocean, they would never come home again, so they would “throw down [their] heart” in despair. Fleck wrote a banjo composition inspired by this painful history, which is performed on the Special Features of the DVD.
Besides Gambia and Tanzania, Fleck also visits Uganda and Mali, and the documentary highlights a variety of musical traditions and instruments from those countries—harps and panpipes and giant xylophones and guitars. I especially love the performance of “Jesus Is the Only Answer” by Ruth Akello from Jinja, Uganda, who plays the kalimba (thumb piano), an instrument consisting of metal tines of varying length attached to a wooden board. She also sings. She’s accompanied by the Ateso Jazz Band and by Fleck.
All the performances are wonderful, but another standout for me is by Grammy Award–winning Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré, a national icon in Mali. She sings “Djorolen,” a lament for the fatherless. An English translation of the Bambara lyrics is below.
The worried songbird cries out in the forest
Her thoughts go far away
For those of us without fathers
Her thoughts go out to them
Abandoned by her father when she was two, Sangaré dropped out of school as a child to help her mother raise the family by singing in the streets. She rose to stardom in her early twenties with the release of her first album, Moussolou (1990). She now tours internationally and is an advocate for women’s rights, opposing child marriage and polygamy.
(Related post: “Music making at Keur Moussa Abbey, Senegal”)
Though marketed as a film about the banjo, Throw Down Your Heart is more broadly a celebration of the diverse musics of the African continent. Through collaborations with virtuoso musicians, Fleck explores how a modern banjo can fit into that soundscape.
The documentary appears not to be available for online streaming, but I rented a copy of the DVD at my local library. There’s also a reasonably priced box set that was released last year, which includes not only the DVD but also a deluxe edition—forty-two tracks!—of the critically acclaimed companion album, featuring a complete disc of previously unreleased material from Fleck performing with kora master Toumani Diabaté.