As Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate said simply, “Bela play American banjo…I play African banjo.” As Bela Fleck started the first of two sets of his Africa Project tour, with some solo material, he took the stage alone with that American banjo. The entire two-set, roughly two hour show was fueled with flavorings from Bela’s trips through Africa playing with, among others, players of the Ngoni, an African ancestor of the banjo.
The Africa Project which Bela started during time off from The Flecktones in 2004, has since given birth to Grammy award winning album Throw Down Your Heart and an award winning documentary (of the same name) chronicling the trip in which Bela visited a slew of different African and Malian locations. Joining Fleck for the 33-city run of college towns in support of the release of more tracks from the project were two groups of these performers.
Anania Ngoglia and John Kitime took the stage as Bela departed for two solo songs. Ngoglia, a multi-instrumentalist from Tanzania played the Wagogo thumb piano, or ilimba for the evening. Kitime, also from Tanzania (and one of the film’s producers), played acoustic guitar.
Fleck then joined Ngoglia and Kitime for two selections. One of these was speckled with chicken noises from Ngoglia, which were intended to mimic the voice of his girlfriend, to which Bela comically added, “…Apparently she sometimes she sounds like a chicken. Sometimes she does not.” Fleck was then grinning ear to ear as he dueled back and forth with Ngoglia.
Taking the stage next was an ensemble of Malian musicians, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba (The Big Ngoni.) Bassekou was joined by seven other musicians, including three other ngoni players, (Fousseyni Kouyate, Barou Kouyate and Moussa Bah) as well two Malian vocalists (Amy Sacko and Ma Soumano) and two percussionists (Alou Coulibaly and Moussa Sissoko). The latter two musicians played on what Fleck described as a very big bald man’s head poking up in the air, in which like a djembe, knuckles and palms created different beats and raps on the hard shell.
Bassekou proved to be a most charismatic front man. His fingers flew across the tiny fretboard of the ngoni as he either horsed down on a wah pedal to give the ngoni a quick jolt, or was at the stage front propping his foot on an amp leading the band. Bela later stepped out and the two recounted stories of Fleck’s travels to Africa and battled a few multi-lingual hecklers before playing one more song that yielded to a short intermission.
The second set saw the musicians combine for an hour of stellar, tag-team musical creation. Fleck led the different groups through the myriad of styles, blending the banjo in seamlessly with the two different regions of African music, which for lack of a better expression, created one extremely unique and entertaining experience. The second set and encore also featured fiddle player Casey Driessen, from Bela’s Sparrow Quartet. With the addition of Driessen, the trios, quartets, octets, howevermanytets rotated on and off stage creating diverse combinations of players feeding off one other. All twelve musicians finally came out for the final song of the night, the Grammy award-winning title track of the project “Throw Down Your Heart.”
The surprisingly long show, just over two hours, was fueled by lots of improvisation and on the fly setlist creation, with the ever changing musical chairs set-up that led to some incendiary musical moments. This tour is a great glimpse into Bela’s ambitious project and the subsequent melding of world music into his playing style. It is well worth the price of admission.