Friday, August 07, 2009

Béla Fleck & Toumani Diabaté - Théâtre Maisonneuve, 8/6/2009

Three weeks after seeing the homegrown banjo-kora meetup of Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko, I was highly curious to see how two undisputed masters of said instruments would approach the collaboration. It was a study in contrasts: whereas Stone met Sissoko firmly on his turf, adapting the sound and playing vocabulary of the kora and ngoni to the banjo, Fleck's approach was more to integrate the banjo, and his language, into the context of traditional African music.

The concert opened with Fleck and Diabaté in duo, playing two new pieces written by Fleck, and Diabaté's "Manchester." Full of the bounce that characterizes Fleck's previous work, the duo prefered to trade solo with one another and accompany each other, playing lines in unison only rarely. The set ended with a stunning, hypnotic solo tour de force from Toumani that left myself and many other people around me entranced and mesmerized. The storytelling power and tradition of griots was in full effect.

Fleck began the second set solo, playing a variety of tunes not unlike his usual solo spots from Flecktones concerts, as well as a piece based only on open strings and harmonics, changing pitch by turning the tuning pegs. He then picked up a custom made cello-banjo, tuned to sound reminiscent of a bass ngoni, and played a medley of traditional songs he learned during his trip to Africa. Diabaté returned to play the absolutely gorgeous Fleck song, "Throw Down Your Heart" (the title of the film and CD, as well as the English translation of the Tanzanian port Bagamoyo, where slaves were boarded onto ships). The encore was an old Malian folk song passed down through the generations of the Diabaté family. After one of Diabaté's usual thrilling cadenzas, Fleck quipped, "Of course you know, this means war," and launched into a full-on "Duelling Banjos" with Diabaté more than holding his own. An impressive and moving concert, truly deserving of the explosive standing ovation it garnered at the end.


I attended a screening of Throw Down Your Heart earlier in the week, and like most documentaries of Western musicians travelling to Asia or Africa, I just wanted to jump and cry. I find it utterly fascinating that a tiny village in Uganda, without running water, can congregate to build and play a 12-foot-long balafon. The role of music in these communities is vital and permeates every part of life - it's not a specialized luxury, as is often the perception in the West. Fleck is honest and humble, marvelling at guitarist Djelimady Tounkara's adaptations of the ngoni language to guitar, and teaching ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate's son how to play the banjo. I'm curious to hear if Fleck will transfer the playing style of kora or Malian guitar virtuosos like Tounkara or Ali Farka Touré to banjo, the way Jayme Stone has.

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