A review from guest reviewer John Sylvester McDermott, with photos by Barry Brandt:
The Africa Project, Bela Fleck’s latest musical collaboration, came to the Orange Peel following the previous week’s showing of Throw Down Your Heart, the documentary film of this recent collaboration (shown at the Asheville Pizza Company).
Last year, Bela Fleck traveled to Africa, bringing the banjo to traditional cultures throughout the continent, and shared his love of music. Director Sasha Palandino has created an incredible film, captivating personal encounters with the instrument’s origins (the original banjo having come from African-gourds played with two strings), and heart-felt musicians whose love for music is embedded in their daily lives. Bela Fleck is now touring with some of these musicians, expanding the film to live performance.
Watching the film enhanced the live experience, as the musicians’ backgrounds and roots are already known. Coming from traditional cultures and gaining sudden exposure to an international music scene is a drastic change, and with Bela Fleck’s acclaimed recognition, he is able to bring unbelievable talent and true artisans to center stage.
To begin the show, Fleck introduced his companions and some of the instruments being played, such as the ilimba (a thumb piano the size of an amplifier), and the ngoni (a West-African lute where the banjo developed from). Both acoustic instruments, they were wired with an amplifier, so the sound carried full on across the floor, bringing an ear-full of traditional African sound.
Fleck disappeared a few songs in to give some of the showcased musicians a chance to demonstrate their incredible virtuoso. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba shone as they played the traditional lutes, engaging the crowd at a level reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix and Warren Haynes. The two dueled on their strings, trading riffs back and forth, and demonstrated how traditional sound could be played like psychedelic rock. Here their presence dominated, and they looked thrilled to be sharing their music with a new world.
The banjo maestro returned to join in the musical trade-off, fusing bluegrass back with the banjo’s origins. More musicians were called onstage, and Ami Sacko, Koyate’s wife, sang with an incredible voice that caused hearts to skip a beat, rising beautifully above the instruments. The second set opened with a slow majestic traditional song about a King of Mali, sung by Sacko and accompanied by Fleck.
Musicians Anania Ngoliga and John Kitima were also present. Kitima plays guitar, the most Westernized music brought from Africa, but is accompanied by Ngoliga on the ilimba. They both have incredible voices and led some of the songs in traditional African verse. Though it is hard to find the literal meaning in the words, the sound comes from the performers’ hearts, and the point of this collaboration is that music is a universal language. It is felt on many levels.
It was wonderful to see smiling faces and lifted spirits singing and playing onstage with an incredible performance accompanied by Fleck. Though Fleck is an amazing musician and draws a big crowd on his own, the Africa Project really exposes the gifts of the African musicians. I felt the show could have been just as good with Fleck’s accompaniments. Through Fleck’s collaboration though, he is able to give them international exposure, which they deserve. All on stage were equally as thankful as the audience for getting to play, and nothing was too far to one side of the table. They ended with an encore and gratitude, and showed that it is music which brings us all together.