Throw Down Your Heart tells the beautiful story of Bela Fleck's journey to Africa to find the true history of his instrument, the banjo. Traveling from Tennessee to Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali, Fleck finds what he's looking for on a deeply spiritual level transcending language and cultural barriers along the way.
This film is more than documentation of Bela Fleck's trip across Africa. It is a testimony to the amazing power of music to unite and act as a universal language. The filmmakers and sound engineers do a spectacular job of capturing the process by which Fleck is able to connect musically and otherwise with musicians and people across the continent. The moment in The Gambia where he sees the akonting for the first time (the instrument most widely regarded as the banjo's direct ancestor) is truly priceless.
My favorite segments of the film were in Mali and Tanzania. Having spent time in East Africa myself, I could relate especially to the culture and scenery of Tanzania shown in the film. The city of Bagamoyo in Tanzania gives the film its name. Bagamoyo translates to Throw Down Your Heart in English. The city got its name from the East African Slave Trade. Slaves would be taken to the Tanzanian coast on the Indian Ocean. After seeing the beautiful ocean, the ships, the sand, the waves, they would never return to their inland village. They would, "Throw Down Their Heart" and never return.
Fleck's trip to Mali will make any African music enthusiast extremely jealous. He is greeted at the airport by Oumou Sangare and given an ambassador's welcome. He then collaborates with Malian musical legends Djelimady Tounkara, Basekou Kouyaté, and Oumou Sangare with the help of Brooklyn's own Banning Eyre (shout out to Afropop Worldwide) to make some beautiful music that bridges the gap across the Atlantic Ocean seamlessly.
This film and the album to which it gave birth, are not the first of their kind. American musicians have traveled to the motherland to get in touch with their musical roots many times before. I've reviewed albums and read books that all detail the same experience, but this film and album especially are different for several reasons.
First of all, Bela Fleck isn't just your average musician. Regarded as one of the best banjo players in the world, Fleck shows why in this film. His magically swift fingers glide up and down his fret board throughout the film which mesh perfectly with the African style highlighted especially by Djelimady Tounkara in Mali. Not just any musician could speak the African music language so fluently. A key element of the film was Fleck's experience time and time again, stunning people in new countries or towns with skill on the banjo. It's exactly that skill that allowed him to gain people's respect so instantly.
Second, because of his status, experience, and success as a musician, Fleck is able to go on a trip of which most musicians can only dream. He has the money and connections to go exactly where he wanted to go and connect with exactly the right people to make beautiful music everywhere he went. Having traveled in Africa myself, I can say from experience, it's not cheap or easy to fly from New York to Kampala, Uganda, to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, to Dakar, Senegal, to Bamako, Mali, back to New York. Overall, that must have cost over $50,000 at least for him and his entourage, and that's just travel expenses.
All that money spent is definitely worth it. This is a beautiful film and album that give credit where it's due. It's not particularly common for established American musicians to travel across the Atlantic just to pay homage to Africa and its historical contributions to American music. This film will inspire you to make a pilgrimage of your own or simply to look at music of the American south from a new perspective.