An Interview with Bela Fleck

by | 31 Mar, 2009

belaRounder Records recently released Bela Fleck’s Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3 – Africa Sessions. They have now released an interview with Bela discussing the project with Rounder Producer and VP of A&R, Scott Billington,: –

Scott Billington: This is such an ambitious project collaborations with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, and Madagascar. Clearly, the trip required a great deal of planning, but can you describe some of the unexpected music you encountered?

Bela Fleck: I was already excited about Oumou Sangare and all of the very well recorded Malian musicians. But I was not sure what we’d encounter in The Gambia, Uganda or Tanzania. We found amazing music everywhere we went. From the giant marimba, to lutes and thumb pianos, African banjos and koras; great music was in abundance.

S: In your liner notes, you write that you suspected that some of the greatest acoustic music on the planet was hidden in small villages in Africa. What did you find there? How did music relate to the lives of the people that lived in those small villages?

B: We went to some very musical places, and I think you do have to know where to look. In these towns the music was something that people were very proud of. The elders who played were highly respected, and the children were being brought up to take it seriously.

S: You’ve come up with an album of thoroughly modern acoustic music. In fact, musicians such as D’Gary and Vusi Mahlasela seem to share your knack for taking traditional elements and fashioning something new. Did this trip change your perception of African music?

B: It just showed me the depth of variety in Africa. I only went to four countries and I found so much more great stuff than I could possibly use. You hear everything there, from music passed on for centuries that remains pretty much the same, to things that are being modernized and changed. Just like here, people play in traditional and contemporary styles. In each case it is the quality of the musician which makes it something you want to hear, or not.

S: Did you find many African musicians adapting to the Western 12-tone scale, or did you have to learn new modes and tunings?

B: Much of the time the music was in a 12-tone scale. Sometimes it was pentatonic, using only 5 notes of the scale. With instruments like marimbas, there were occasional ‘in-between’ notes. For instance there might be 6 equally spaced wooden bars making up an octave. I would have to find something that seemed to sound good and avoid the notes that clashed.

S: The giant marimba in Nakasenyi in Kenya must be one of the most fantastic instruments on the planet. Is it actually taken apart and reassembled each day? Does most everyone in the village learn to play, or is playing the marimba a privilege reserved for only some people? The idea of a village instrument is very appealing.

B: The marimba is reassembled every day, and it seems to be played by a set group of men. Each one plays a certain musical part in the group. I think there are other people who know each of the parts in case someone is unable, or unavailable to play. Also there seemed to be kids who were being taught parts. But a spot in the primary team seemed to be a very coveted spot, and the men who played in this group were very serious and very good. The village did join in – in large numbers, singing and playing flutes and fiddles and percussion instruments. They also danced.

S: We often hear that the banjo had its origins in Africa. Do you remember what led you personally to this discovery? Did you find what you were looking for with regard to the African roots of the banjo?

B: I had heard that the banjo had African roots, and so I read up about it. For those who are interested, there is a book called That Barbaric Twang that is available currently and is very interesting. I also was very aware of the banjo’s role in early jazz, and was on a bit of a crusade, to remind people that the banjo has a black heritage. A big reason why I was concerned with it has to do with growing up in New York City and being tired of the Hee-Haw, Dueling Banjos and Jed Clampett stereotypes around the instrument. I prefer to look at the banjo in a broader context than just the bluegrass and old-time part of its story (which I am a big fan of, incidentally).

When you look at the whole history, I actually fit in pretty naturally. In the late 1800’s there was a constant argument on about what type music should be played on the banjo, slave music, more modern stuff or even light classical music. Ladies played the banjo in the drawing room. The banjo played a major role in the birth of jazz. So I wondered: why must people flap their arms and make chicken sounds when I walk by with my banjo?

When I went to Africa I found instruments and players that gave me a better sense of where the thing started. In Gambia and Mali in particular, I found what I was looking for.

S: You recorded many of these songs on location, and some listeners might be expecting field recordings. Yet, the sound of the record is gorgeous. Can you explain how you and your team did this?

B: I had listened to a good number of field recordings before going. There was a lot to love about these recordings, but having a critical nature, there were times when I was disappointed in the mix or sound quality. I decided that I wanted full studio quality multi-track recording, and good studio microphones on the trip.

This was possible to a greater extent than ever before, with all of the leaps in recording technology in recent years. I brought a great studio engineer, David Sinko, and he teamed up with our documentary sound engineer, Wellington Bowler, to get the amazing recordings we got.

We brought along 2 different small multi-track recorders, so we could record up to 12 tracks when both machines were working. This gave me the ability to bring home the music, to edit and mix it properly. It also gave us a back up for when one machine didn’t work. When we got home, I did the editing and most of the mixing, and sometimes it was tricky, but I guess we made the right decisions, and I had what I needed to work with to make a great sounding recording.

S: Please tell me about the upcoming tour and who will be on it.

B: For the first tour, in March and April, we will bring over 4 artists, all of whom appear on the recording. These are Toumani Diabate, the preeminent kora player from Mali, Vusi Mahlasela, South Africa’s apartheid fighting vocalist and guitarist, D’Gary, the amazing fingerstyle guitarist from Madagascar and Anania Ngoglia, a singer and thumb piano player from Tanzania.

We will play separately and together and demonstrate the subtlety, depth and beauty of African acoustic music (with an American banjo player).

S: Thanks, Bela. This is one of the most exciting albums we’ve released in quite a while, and I truly look forward to the tour.