Thursday, June 18, 2009

Film review: ‘Throw Down Your Heart,' banjo strumming across Africa

Bela Fleck, right, with African musicians
in Throw Down Your Heart.

By Hap Erstein

The banjo and Africa. Maybe they seem to have nothing in common, but as Grammy-winning virtuoso of the instrument Bela Fleck explains in the appealing musicology lesson and travelogue, Throw Down Your Heart, the former is the product of the latter.

So armed with videocassettes and a wide-eyed curiosity, Fleck and his filmmaker half-brother, Sascha Paladino, set off to find the roots of the banjo, not unlike British explorer John Speke’s search for the mouth of the Nile River.

The film, which opens Friday and continues through June 28, comes with the pedigree of audience awards from the Vancouver International and Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festivals. Well-filled and edited, its strength is in the transporting power of its infectious music, the language Fleck uses to communicate with his African counterparts.

American Fleck charts a road and air trip with specific destinations in Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali. Ostensibly, he goal is to understand the derivation of the banjo, but his agenda also includes meeting, jamming and recording with some of the stars of the African tribal folk music tradition.

Along the way, Fleck — and the viewer — learns a bit about the dark history of slave trade. The film’s title seems curiously generic until it is explained that Throw Down Your Heart is the translation of the Swahili name for the seaport in Tanzania where captured locals were loaded onto ships to be transported away into bondage.

Still, the music Fleck finds is rhythmic, upbeat and complex and the film works on the level of a mere music video, with Paladino indulging a cross-cultural jam session while his camera roams the area, stopping at whatever catches his eye.

At it happens, the banjo is closely related to the Gambian akonting, a hollowed-out gourd covered with a tightly stretched animal skin, fitted with a long neck and three strings. Members of the Jatta family keep the instrument’s jaunty sound alive and we observe as they nimbly play a duet with Fleck on banjo.

Most of the tribes encountered are staunchly male chauvinist, but in Uganda a girl shows them up, nimbly playing a hand-held thumb-piano, whose operation looks for all the world like texting on a BlackBerry. In the tour’s final stop, the more sophisticated Mali, Fleck meets and is properly awed by internationally known vocalist Oumou Sangare, whom he accompanies in a studio session.

Some odyssey films like this get lucky and run into adversity, which lends the narrative added twists. The most unscripted trauma in Throw Down Your Heart is when Fleck’s van overheats, hardly the stuff of high drama. Still, this 97-minute film manages to hold our attention, illustrates a non-verbal bonding between vastly different people who have music in common and is also refreshingly entertaining.

THROW DOWN YOUR HEART. Studio: Argot Pictures and Old School Ltd.; Director: Sascha Paladino; With Bela Fleck. In English, French, Swahili, Lusogan, Bambara and Jola, with English subtitles. Mos-Art Theatre, 700 Park Ave., Lake Park. June 19 -28. (561) 337-6763.

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