Whence the Banjo? The Rumpus Interview with Béla Fleck and Sascha Paladino

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bela_tdyh1Throw Down Your Heart, the new documentary by banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and his filmmaker brother Sascha Paladino, follows Fleck on a musical heritage tour of Africa. The goal? To trace the roots of the banjo and to record some great music.

Béla Fleck has the honor of having been nominated for more Grammies in more categories than any other person. Born in New York City to parents sophisticated enough to name him after Béla Bartok, he started playing banjo in high school. Sascha Paladino – his much younger brother – is the director of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan on Nickelodeon.

Fleck and Paladino sat down with The Rumpus to talk about Fleck’s heretofore unknown appearance on Hee Haw, the five albums he’d bring to a desert island, and why Hollywood thought he needed a black friend.

The Rumpus: How did you decide to make this documentary?

Béla Fleck: Sascha made a great film about me and Edgar Meyer – a short film – that was really interesting and special, and attracted the attention of Peter Gelb at Sony, who wanted to put out this African record and thought that Sascha should make a movie about it.

Sascha Paladino: And I thought it was a good idea.

Rumpus: You got on board.

Fleck: We all thought it was a great idea. Except once Peter Gelb found out how much it was going to cost he backed out.  And left us holding the bag.

Paladino: He thought it was going to be a lower budget kind of thing, and we wanted to do it right. But if he hadn’t brought up the idea I don’t know what would have happened.

Fleck: Yeah, we have to thank Peter. I mean, in most ways we have to thank him. He was definitely coming from the right place all along. But because we thought we were doing it at Sony that whole time we never looked anywhere else. When he backed out it was too late. We’d already spent a huge amount of money and planned a bunch of people’s lives around it.

Rumpus: Who paid for it then?bela_banjo_picture

Fleck: I ended up financing it.

Paladino: In a way, that turned out great. We were lucky you [Fleck] were in a position to do that, and it was great because we didn’t have to answer to anyone.

Fleck: It safeguarded the creative process in a cool way.

Rumpus: Of the film or of the music?

Fleck: I doubt anybody would have pushed me [on the music]. When I was at Sony nobody ever gave me any creative suggestions on the music.

Paladino: The danger was more with the film. With that kind of investment, people want to make sure they’re getting something back.

Rumpus: Let’s say you were one of these people: you’re at Sony, and you wanted to buy this film. What changes would you have wanted to see?

Fleck: Well, I can tell you one thing. When I got back and I met with people at Sony Pictures about it, they said, you know, would you consider doing this with Danny Glover? Like go to Africa with Danny Glover? Or Forrest Whittaker? So you had a black friend you were exploring Africa with?

Rumpus: A black friend?

Fleck: Yes. I was like, no, you don’t understand: we’ve already gone. Of course, they’re trying to think about how to make this a mass appeal kind of thing. And of course, we would love it to be a mass appeal kind of thing. But so was Buena Vista [Social Club]. And it wasn’t done as a mass appeal kind of thing.

Paladino: The other thing I would say [about proposed changes to the documentary]. When we came back, and we were looking for funding to finish the film, people kept saying, okay, so what’s Béla’s transformation? What’s his journey? They were looking at it as a conventional narrative, and a lot of the commercial documentaries nowadays have that. Great movies, like Spellbound.

We thought about it a lot, and we even tried different versions of the film that had Béla’s voiceover, talking about how he changed, but -

Fleck: It felt false.

Paladino: He didn’t really change. He went to Africa. He wanted to make great music. He made great music. He came back.

The movie isn’t really about Béla. It’s really about the people he meets along the way and these portraits of people you wouldn’t have a chance to hang out with normally or listen to.

Rumpus: So no transformation.

Fleck: If there was a transformation it actually happened after the making of the film. When we got home, what happened? We spent two to three years straight working on the project, editing the film, editing the music. Both Sascha and I. A day didn’t go by when I wasn’t immersed in this material. So I think the musical evolution I’ve gone through has come from all the work with the material. The personal evolution [was more] from watching the footage and seeing all the things that I didn’t know was happening around me. I learned a lot about myself.

Rumpus: Like what? What did you learn?

Fleck: Everybody should have a documentary made about themselves. It’s amazing what you see and what you learn. (Pauses) I learned that I’m so busy with what I’m doing, so focused on what I’m doing, that I miss a lot of opportunities for interacting with people. I’ve got an obsessive quality.

Rumpus: Oumou Sangaré – in the documentary – said an interesting thing. She said, Béla is someone who maybe doesn’t express himself verbally very well, but he expresses himself perfectly with the banjo. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?

Fleck: I think I’m getting better at being verbal. I used to have a lot of problems with it. I had my own little demons that I was fighting, and I used the banjo as an escape. But I think I’m doing better.

Rumpus: After this interview, I certainly wouldn’t have characterized you as not being verbal.

Fleck: (laughs) Good. I want to make one more point about the movie… I was a big fan of a writer named Jack Vance, a science fiction writer. He always wrote about these guys who were either going down a river in a strange world or would be in this one land where people acted really strange, and he’d have these interactions with them that were strange – he’d usually get run out of town or something. Then he’d end up in the next town over where the rules were totally different. And I love this stuff. So when people were saying the movie has to have a story arc – a beginning, a middle, and an end – I thought, does it really? I wasn’t buying it.

Rumpus: Were there any musicians who didn’t make it into the movie that you wanted to record with?

Fleck: Toumani [Diabaté] didn’t make it into the film. He was traveling – he seemed too busy. He’s a big, big star. But then he called me up and said, Béla, I want to be in your movie. It was too late, but we did get him on the record.

Rumpus: When you say Toumani is a big star, what exactly do you mean?

Fleck: Toumani is the most well-known instrumentalist from Africa. Two years ago he won the Grammy with Ali Farka Touré. He’s recorded with Taj Mahal. He’s one of the great collaborators from the African instrumental scene.

The cool thing is that he’s been able to pull it off as an instrumentalist. I really relate to Toumani because of that. He’s playing an ethnic instrument and bringing it to the world.

Rumpus: Is that how you see your career as a banjoist?

Fleck: It’s definitely part of it.

Rumpus: How did you pick up the banjo?

Fleck: I first heard the banjo on the Beverly Hillbillies, and from then on I was banjo-conscious. But I didn’t actually get one until my grandfather gave me one, almost by mistake. He knew I was playing a little bit of guitar. He saw a banjo at a flea market and bought it. I took it home with me and just never put it down. I was fifteen.

Rumpus: This is in New York City.

Fleck: New York City, yeah.

Rumpus: One of the stated goals of the movie is to take this instrument – the banjo – that you point out is identified as a white working-class –

Fleck: White Southern.

Rumpus: Yes, a kind of cracker instrument — and to trace the African roots of the banjo.

Fleck: There are a lot of chapters to the banjo’s history. Part of it are the roots in Africa, where it’s a more primitive instrument. Then it comes to the United States where it morphs into the slave music that they created here, which was very African in origin. Gradually, it starts to become imitated by white players in blackface doing the minstrel shows that, you know, we would consider to be in very bad taste if we heard it today, but at the time was done in England and all over the world. Then, to the debates about what was appropriate to play on the banjo, whether it should only be savage, primitive music, or whether you could play minuets and light classical music on it.

Rumpus: When was this discussion?

Fleck: Late 1800s. They were selling thousands of banjos every year. Many thousands. It was like the guitar.

Rumpus: Then?

Fleck: Then the banjo works its way into the beginnings of jazz. Louis Armstrong’s early bands. Jelly Roll Morton’s music. Cab Calloway. All this stuff with the banjo in it. Then it becomes excised from jazz by one guitar recording. Everybody wanted to have a guitar after that.

The slave music continues to be assimilated into other cultural variants – Southern Appalachian mountain music, bluegrass, old time music. There are black string bands of that time that played old time music, that are largely forgotten.

And then Earl Scruggs comes along and transforms the banjo into a virtuosic modern instrument. For the first time, the Southern banjo style becomes the identity of the banjo, and everything from before is wiped off of people’s consciousness by the power of that explosion.

Rumpus: This is good? Bad?

Fleck: It’s just – being from New York, I wonder why am I inspired by bluegrass and Earl Scruggs? But when I look at the whole history of the banjo, I feel really good about it, including the Earl Scruggs part.

Rumpus: Speaking of banjos, what do you think about the movie Deliverance?

Fleck: I like the movie. That’s one of the most powerful uses of music in a scene in a movie. That’s why that song had such a great impact, aside from being such a catchy number. And it forever cemented people’s image of the banjo as a cracker instrument.

Rumpus: That’s what I was wondering about.

Fleck: The other thing that cemented it was the television show Hee Haw, which you’re probably too young to remember.

Rumpus: I’m from Arkansas.

Fleck: You know it then. They’d jump out of the haystack and say, Hee haw! I’d watch the show to hear some banjo, but I didn’t want anything to do with jumping out of the haystack, you know.

Rumpus: Or the cornrow.

Fleck: But I did it. I appeared on that show before it closed.

Paladino: I didn’t know that.

Rumpus: We’ll have to Google that. (Rumpus readers: please find this if you can! But see below for a Johnny Cash appearance on Hee Haw.)

Fleck: Yep. The late eighties, when they were still taping.

Rumpus: If you were banished to a desert island and you could only take five albums, what would they be?

Fleck: Hmm. Joni Mitchell Blue, Oumou Sangaré’s Collection, Making Music by Zakir Hussain…what am I up to?

Rumpus: Three. You can take one of your own, if you want.

Fleck: Abbey Road. (Long pause) Kind of Blue.

Rumpus: Do you have a favorite hip-hop album?

Fleck: I don’t know enough about hip-hop, though I’ve heard some great hip-hop. I just did a thing with Qwest Love – we did a performance together in Memphis at the Folk Alliance Festival, and we had a great jam and a conversation. I learned that there’s a lot of hip-hop that would be great with a banjo in it. It would just groove like crazy, and I hope I get to be one of the guys who does that, because it’s coming. It’s coming.

Rumpus: You think so?

Fleck: I promise. He said he has something in mind.


Scott Hutchins is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University. His debut novel A Working Theory of Love has been heralded by the New York Times as "charming, warm-hearted, and thought-provoking," and was a Salon.com and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2012. ScottHutchins.com More from this author →