Béla Fleck Plays New Film, Banjo

“I smell banjo,” Béla Fleck says to his camera crew in his new documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.”

The banjo virtuoso showed clips from the film last Thursday at the New College Theatre as part of a talk presented by the Harvard College American Music Association. The film documents Fleck’s travel to the African nations of Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali in an effort to uncover the roots of the instrument that is now regarded as quintessentially American. He eventually encountered the akontig, an instrument fashioned from a gourd with striking similarities to today’s banjo. For 30 consecutive days, Fleck met and played with local musicians, choosing songs in the evening and playing them for the rolling cameras the next day.

“The beat almost never was where I thought it was,” Fleck told the audience as a clip of one of his jams sessions was screened. “I was often one-sixteenth off.”

After his African adventure, Fleck effectively put his musical career on a three-year hiatus in order to edit the film, which will premiere at the South by Southwest music festival.

Fleck claims that the whirlwind nature of his tour of Africa did not allow him to practice and internalize specific songs. “The music I learned in Africa is insidiously a part of me,” he said.

Now back from his break, Fleck is currently touring with jazz pianist Chick Corea, one of his main inspirations. He shared other sources of his early inspiration, including the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Fleck first heard the banjo at the age of four while watching reruns of the popular show at his grandparents’ home in Queens. The theme song features the banjo playing of Earl Scrubs. Fleck claims to have been immediately struck by the sound.

Years later, after applying to a music and arts school, Fleck once again heard the sounds of the banjo when the movie “Deliverance” was released and the song “Dueling Banjos” became a smash hit. Shortly thereafter, Fleck’s grandfather bought an old banjo for his brother, which Fleck immediately took possession of.

Fleck, who learned the banjo by moving to Nashville and mimicking the masters of the time, candidly discussed his lack of formal education. He admitted that his inability to read music sometimes limits the range of music he can play, but he also emphasized the advantages of his self-taught methods. By mimicking electric bass players, Fleck mapped scales on the banjo, allowing the instrument to play beyond the set intervals of bluegrass music. He claims he is proudest of the discoveries he made himself.

Although Fleck is well versed in the traditional bluegrass music with which the banjo is associated, he is well known for his forays into other styles, including classical music and fusion jazz.

“The banjo does well with so many genres because of its rhythmic and melodic capacities,” he said. “It has an earthiness and doesn’t really sound like anything else. However, it doesn’t just automatically work with anything you try. It has to be played with someone who really tries to listen...As time goes by, I’ve realized you’re not helping yourself by limiting the type of music you like. Normally, if I don’t like something at first, I like it as I listen to it more.”

“Looking back on it now,” he said, “I realize that what draws me to music is rhythm, a good beat.”