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Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart

4.7 out of 5 stars 105 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

When world-renowned banjoist B'la Fleck realized that his instrument had lost its musical heritage, he decided to make a pilgrimage to Africa to rediscover the banjo's folk music roots. Overflowing with the incredible music of Fleck and the many celebrated folk musicians who hosted him in Africa, BLA FLECK: THROW DOWN YOUR HEART follows the banjo virtuoso on a musical adventure that takes him from Uganda to Tanzania and from the Gambia to Mali. As he travels through the continent to research the history of the banjo and record an album with some of Africa's finest musicians-and, in his words, "to make great music." Fleck discovers the rich and diverse musical traditions of Africa, as well as the warmth and generosity of its people. Through its stunning location footage, enthusiastic jam sessions, and hauntingly beautiful music, director Sascha Paladino's multi-award-winning BLA FLECK: THROW DOWN YOUR HEART captures one of the world's greatest musicians demonstrating how music transcends languages, cultures and continents.

Béla Fleck has spent most of his career moving the banjo into the future--i.e., away from what he calls "the white southern stereotype" and, with the help of his band the Flecktones, into genres not normally associated with the instrument--but with Throw Down Your Heart, he goes in the opposite direction, traveling to Africa to explore the banjo's ancient roots. Joined by documentary filmmaker Sascha Paladino, Fleck journeys to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali, where he jams with (and records) a variety of musicians (most of whom, ironically, have never so much as seen a banjo before), and the results are consistently lilting and joyous. In the Ugandan village of Nakisenyi, Fleck accompanies several locals playing a gigantic marimba as others sing, clap, and play wood blocks. In a small Tanzanian town, he sits in with some folks playing the kalimba, or thumb piano, while in Dar es Salaam, that country's largest city, he guests with an electric band with a kind of Afro-Cuban sound. In Gambia he jams with a fellow who plays a long-necked, three-stringed instrument called the akonting, a distant relative of the banjo, and in Mali he meets singer Oumou Sangare, one of the country's biggest stars. Fleck is appropriately deferential in all instances, and the interaction between the musicians is natural and intuitive; the Africans may be blown away by his virtuoso technique, but they are no slouches themselves, so these are meetings between equals. There are occasional glances at other aspects of African culture and history (such as the Tanzanian slave trade), but the music's the thing, and if the main program doesn't satisfy one's hunger for these wonderfully infectious sounds, an hour of bonus scenes and performances surely will. Fleck and Paladino also contribute an audio commentary track. --Sam Graham

Amazon Q&A with Q&A with Béla Fleck and Sascha Paladino, director of Béla Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart

Did you actually play an akonting or another banjo-predecessor while you were in Africa?

BÉLA: Yes I did. And in the extra cuts in the new version of the film, there is some footage.I did better at learning their music on the banjo, though...

Has the trip to Africa affected or influenced your playing style since? For example, did you mimic any of Djelimady Tounkara's ngoni–inspired technique?

BÉLA: I love the way it has changed my playing and given me some different thoughts to try. I also got a lot out of all the live touring I did with Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate and the other great musicians who came over.

Have you kept in touch with any of the African musicians or people you met during filming?

BÉLA: Yes we have, some more than others of course.

Some of the musical moments ended up being pretty intimate; were you expecting that? Were any of the musicians uncomfortable being filmed?

SASCHA: I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew that the music would be amazing, but I didn't know how the musicians would feel about being filmed. Luckily, they really opened themselves up to us. Part of that had to do with Béla--when he pulled out his banjo and started playing, it put the African musicians at ease even if there were language barriers. Instant connections were formed through the music, and one of my goals with the film was to highlight those connections.

The setup of the story and the interviews are unobtrusive in that they allow the music to do most of the talking. Did you intentionally shy away from some of the documentary precepts for your first feature?

SASCHA: Yes. It was important to me to let the music speak for itself. I wanted to make sure this film wasn't just a collection of "talking head" interviews. I tried to include just enough of a glimpse into each musician's life and personality so that it would deepen your experience of their music, but not get bogged down with talking. To me, the film is a musical adventure, with Béla as your guide, that gives you a chance to hang out with and get to know some amazing African musicians. One of the themes that surfaced during the filming was the idea that Westerners are often exposed to the negative things happening in Africa – poverty, AIDS, war, things like that. As Haruna Walusimbi says in the film, that is only a very small bit of what Africa is. As a result, a big part of the film is about shedding light on some very beautiful, joyous things in Africa. One way we did that was by putting the glorious music front and center.

Though most of your previous ventures were in writing, are you going to focus more on directing now that you've completed this film?

SASCHA: I plan to continue both writing and directing. I like that writing and directing use different parts of your brain, but that in the end they're both really about telling good stories.

What made you decide to make this film together?

BÉLA: Sascha had shot a film about Edgar Meyer and me, called Obstinato: Making Music for Two. When he made this movie, I got excited about his talent, especially since he is my younger brother. So he became the obvious and only choice when I decided to go to Africa and realized that it would have to be filmed.
SASCHA: When Béla asked me to work on the film, I had been making short documentaries for a few years, and had worked as a cinematographer on a music film in Africa, so I knew a bit about the challenges and joys of making a movie there. Since Béla is my brother, there was a level of comfort in working together that was a really positive thing for both of us. Béla and I didn't grow up together (he is 17 years older than me), and working together was a way of getting to know each other better, too.

Would you be interested in going back to Africa, maybe to places you didn't get a chance to see, and making more music?

BÉLA: Yes, although I experienced so much on this recent trip that there is not a rush to go back immediately. I have some other projects to do right now, and other parts of the world to consider going to.
SASCHA: For sure. There's so much amazing music in Africa, we really just scratched the surface. There are many, many movies to be made about music in Africa!

Oumou said that Béla was better at communicating with his hands, that is, musically. Were you nonetheless curious or left in the dark about what the lyrics were saying? Haruna Walusimbi's song about his father was extremely moving; did you grasp the subject matter at the time?

BÉLA: I had no idea what Haruna was singing or why he was crying until afterwards. It makes it very interesting to watch now, knowing what is going to happen.
SASCHA: I had a very deliberate strategy with the use of subtitles. The first couple of songs in the film, there are no subtitles translating the lyrics. This is because I wanted to put the viewer into Béla's shoes – he didn't know what the lyrics were saying at the time since they were in a different language, and he was really focused on the music. But as the film goes on you start to get subtitles translating the lyrics, starting with Haruna Walusimbi's song. The lyrics, dealing with the loss of Haruna's father, are very meaningful, and they deepen the emotional experience of the scene. So, starting with that scene the viewer is taken out of Béla's perspective a little bit and given more information than he had at the moment it was filmed.

The music created and recorded seemed so organic to the process, did you expect the trip to be such an overwhelming success?

SASCHA: When we first arrived in Africa at the beginning of the shoot, we had some fears that things weren't going to turn out the way we had hoped, and we wouldn't find enough compelling music. But soon we found our groove – and some amazing musicians – and the result was better than we could have imagined.
BÉLA: We were very ambitious, but the trip far exceeded our expectations.

Product Details

  • Actors: Bela Fleck
  • Directors: Sascha Paladino
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Docurama
  • DVD Release Date: November 3, 2009
  • Run Time: 97 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B001U9BRX4
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #59,454 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A. M. Johnson on June 29, 2009
Format: DVD
I just had the opportunity to see this documentary at a local independent theater. I thought "Banjos and Africa? Random! But could be fun..." I was so so so underestimating the power of this film! The music is nothing short of tremendous (one piece in particular, in the first quarter of the film, is virtually guaranteed to leave you breathless and astounded), Incredible, passionate voices and remarkable instruments combine to form sounds that will grab your soul and shake it.

Bela is fun to watch as he interacts with African musicians of various calibers. I love how unassuming he is, and how he speaks (as one of the African musicians points out) perfectly through his music, although his mouth sometimes fails him. What a remarkably talented and humble guy!

All in all, 5 stars +++. I went home and bought the MP3 album immediately, and can't wait to buy the DVD. :)
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wow, i JUST came back from watching this at an indie theater in chicago. LOVE IT! bela is an african brother! western media only portrays africa in terms of despair, destruction, disaster, disease and destitution.

Bela shows the joy of African music and how music is truly universal. it may sound cheesy, but it's a wonderful documentary. the cinematography is beautiful as well. bela meets with fabulous people. this doc. is so rich and uplifting. bela is truly a gift and using his talent to do more than what most of today's pop singers don't have the guts/skills to do.
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Mother Africa is the cradle of our species. She has also given birth to so much of our music that we sometimes lose our ear for its origins. "I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from because it is so much associated with a white Southern stereotype," says Bela Fleck, the world's primo virtuoso of this instrument. In "Throw Down Your Heart", he documents his six-week sojourn to Africa to discover whether the modern banjo still has a vibrant voice in the land where it was born.
The banjo is a descendant of an instrument that African slaves brought to the New World in the 16th century. It sat in the laps of musicians in cane and cotton fields, in plantation shacks and sheds, atop the levees and bales of raw goods that stood along the rivers that brought the blues to the bustling gulf ports.
By the early 19th century, the banjo was an essential element in plantation cakewalks and white minstrelsy. It accompanied sailors in their sea chanteys and traveled west with hopeful miners toward the Gold Rush. After the Civil War, the presentation banjo was adopted as a parlor instrument alongside the player piano. In the early 20th century, it sang in the ragtime orchestra and the Dixieland band. By the 1930s, the banjo had disappeared from the jazz ensemble, though it continued to flourish in folk music and in the jigs and reels of barn dances in the Appalachian states that reached a national audience through radio broadcasts. In the mid-1940s, the banjo burst forth as an instrument of arresting brilliance when it was featured in bluegrass music.
In the four countries on his itinerary, Bela Fleck steers clear of big cities and large venues.
Read more ›
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I liked the African music a lot. I'm a banjo player, and have recently become very interested in the African roots of an instrument. So I grabbed this as soon as I saw it on the shelf at my local movie rental place.

The film is very simple; just Bela interacting with other musicians and singers. His somewhat quiet but affable manner fits nicely with his hosts - he doesn't come across as some fancy rock star at all and really lets the African musicians shine. And it's those African musicians who really do make the film so special. I was touched by the woman marimba player: they said that "typically the marimba was a male instrument - but that woman is a wizard!"

My one (major) complaint is that there wasn't very much *information* in the film. The meaning of the phrase "Throw Down Your Heart" was moving, but there was little else. For instance, when in Gambia and showing the instruments being played, it would have been very nice to point out that the musicians were playing in the 'clawhammer' style - a style used in Southern US old-time music (the strings are played with the backs of the fingernails), demonstrating nicely that both the instrument and the way it is played have their roots among the African slaves. I also would have a liked a little more info about the instruments themselves, their history and the variety of ways to play them.

I think Bela's primary interest was simply to *play* the banjo with his African friends, and the film shows that very well.
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I first heard about this film from a friend in the music industry. I went to a private screening in Beverly HIlls, as I heard that Bela Fleck would be present, and I was anxious to re-connect with him. I had supervised the music for THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES MOVIE, and i had hired Bela to record the theme song in the early 90's. The film took me by total surprise. This documentary follows Bela as he traces the roots of the banjo through various African countries. From the first encounter I was riveted. I have always been a huge fan of African music, much more so than traditional American banjo music. The initial clash, and then blending of the two musical worlds has created one of the most intriguing soundtracks of recent memory. As the unlikely white boy musician arrives with his peculiar instrument in remote villages to meet local musicians, the magic begins and they discover and respect each others' unique talents. I purchased the soundtrack CD before leaving the theatre. I have told many friends about the importance of this picture, and with total agreement from all of them. When I learned the DVD was finally available, i rushed to purchase it. However it has now become the property of my 15 year old daughter, who became enchanted with the music months ago from the CD. This music constantly is playing in our home or car, and we've yet to tire of it. I give this film my highest rating! Enjoy!
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