Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 29, 2009

Bela Fleck/The Africa Project

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
by Eric Sutter

Premier banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck's The Africa Project kicked off its world debut at Colonial Theatre with bandmates Toumani Mahlesela (Mali), Vusi Mahlesela (South Africa), D'Gary (Madagascar), Anania Ngoliga(Tanzania) and Casey Dreissen (Nashville). In 2005, Fleck journied to Africa to perform with great musicians and look into the roots of the banjo -- he found what he was looking for in Gambia and Mali with its deep -rooted banjo heritage. This sold-out "Throw Down Your Heart Tour" mixed the sounds of the banjo with African folk music and united two different musical traditions that came from the same place. The tour began with Fleck's banjo instrumental, after which each amazing African performer demonstrated his music solo followed with collaborations with Fleck and each other.

Ngoliga is a blind marimba maestro who performed his chill inducing music which sounded like a vibraphone. He played in a spiritually jazzy style joined by Fleck in a melodic timbre of gentle sound that expressed sweet as honey joy. This was deep and intimate music, acoustic and intense. Banjo and Swahili voice were tenderly interwoven in a uniform dialogue. Fleck played an African folk instrumental from Mali on a cello banjo. D'Gary played a jazz-folk guitar instrumental with accompaniament by a hand-percussionist. As they sang in their tribal African voices, the percussionist let out a high whistle from his voice. Fleck joined on banjo and Dreissen on fiddle. This was not bluegrass, but an African country song "Kanetsa," with stop-start percussive rhythms and pregnant pauses that resumed with loud yee-haw voices.

The second half brought out the soulful voiced Mahlesela on acoustic guitar. who sang a joyful "Beauty of Our Country." His vocalizations mimicked his guitar playing precisely while he danced playfully. The soul of Africa met the drive of country as Fleck joined in. Meditative jams combined with flashy instrumentals to create musical fireworks in this cultural exchange. Diabate closed the evening with the Kora (a 21 string harp from Mali); he is the 72nd generation of players in his family. The audience was spellbound. The entire cast joined him on stage for a memorable musical moment.