An Interview With Celebrated Banjo Player Béla Fleck

Jessica Cassyle Carr
4 min read
BŽla on Banjos
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New York City native Béla Fleck went to Africa to discover the roots of an instrument usually associated with America. This intercontinental travel has resulted in a documentary and album, both titled Throw Down Your Heart . In support of the 2010 Grammy-nominated work, Fleck is in the midst of an extensive tour known as Africa Project: Collaborations with Amazing African Musicians. On Wednesday, Feb. 3, the tour stops at The Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 West San Francisco, Santa Fe) and features Malian folk hero and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate with his band Ngoni Ba. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $36 to $54, and can be obtained at, or by calling (505) 988-1234.

Earlier this week Béla Fleck answered a few of our questions via e-mail …

Would you tell a brief history of the banjo?

The banjo is an instrument that occurs naturally in many cultures. It is a gourd with a wooden neck. Some say it started in Mesopotamia as the lute or oud, some say it is from Africa. At any rate, there were (and still are) instruments of this type in West Africa, where many slaves came from. When the slaves came to the Americas they built banjos. Thus these instruments came to the Americas. The banjo became more and more refined, and played a major role in the beginnings of our music.

How would you describe the music of Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba?

Bassekou plays one of the West African banjo-like instruments, the N’goni. In fact he is a genius on it, one of the greatest ever. His group celebrates this instrument, with four great N’goni players, two percussionists and an incredible Mande singer, Ami Sacko. They rock! Also with us is another of my favorite musicians whom I met in Africa, Tanzanian phenomenon Anania Ngoliga. He is a blind thumb piano player and singer from Tanzania, and he performs with guitarist and singer John Kitime. These are my guests on this leg of the tour.

Being from New York City, and the banjo being so associated with rural America, was the instrument for you like an escape from urban life?

I suppose, although at first I really wasn’t attracted to the Southern part of it, I just liked that super fast thing. As I grew more familiar with it, I grew to love all of it, even scratchy records with extreme accents and sandpaper fiddling. But my path from the beginning seemed to be to honor who I was and not assimilate totally into southern culture.

What are your top five favorite cities of the world?

Paris, San Francisco, Barcelona, Portland, Oregon and Boston—for no particular reasons!

Besides banjo, what are your other favorite pass times?

I spend a lot of time on music when I am not actually playing—studio stuff, composing, etc. I do love the engineering/editing stuff. Aside from that I love spending time with my wife, and staying fit.

If you weren’t a acclaimed banjo player, what would you do for a living?

Probably produce music, or try to write film scores …

Guiltiest music pleasure: tie between Barbara Streisand and Air Supply (just a couple of songs, really)

What’s the biggest challenge to music right now?

I think there is a huge transition going on right now, and established people who thought they were set for life are suddenly not selling records or drawing crowds. Making it through the ups and downs and sticking to your ideals is a big challenge, but well worth it. There are upsides as well. But I do think there is so much music coming out these days, that it is harder to get your music out there. On another tack, you could say that so much has already been done, it’s harder to actually do something that is truly unusual.

What do you want people to know?

For folks who don’t know all about this current project, I went to Africa in 2005 with a film crew and recording engineers, looking for great musical situations to play in, and to look into the origins of the banjo. I came back with an incredible wealth of material. The film and CD are called
Throw Down Your Heart . Last year I began bring over remarkable African musicians for touring in the U.S., and it has been some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Come see us, this is an unusual opportunity to hear the real stuff. Also I am releasing a new CD’s worth of material, Throw Down Your Heart 2 , for this tour—only available as a download from or CDs at the concerts.
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