In 2008, wishing to go back to the origins of his instrument, Béla Fleck travelled to the African continent. Africa is indeed the cradle of the banjo, or rather of the instrument that inspired its conception: the akonting, a rustic lute originating from the Diola region in Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, made with a half-calabash covered with goatskin and equipped with a long, very thin neck to which three strings are attached. Fleck took advantage of his stay there to shoot a documentary film and glean numerous songs, which he then grouped together in two volumes under the title Throw Down your Heart, after a Gambian expression – literally throwing down your heart – that expresses the “sinking feeling” that the slaves felt when they saw the slave ship at the time of their deportation, and understood that they would never return.
It seems that akonting and other instruments were often brought on board and helped save lives. As the conditions of the crossing were atrocious – many perished – music was often the only thing that connected these uprooted and dispossessed people to their culture and life.
On his trip, Fleck had the opportunity to meet and play with a host of local musicians, including D’Gary, Oumou Sangaré, Baba Maal and Bassekou Kouyaté, but Toumani Diabaté, the Malian virtuoso of the kora (another African instrument made with half a calabash and an animal skin, though related to the harp), was not free at the time. The two musicians finally met and were able to play together a few months later at a workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, followed by a tour of some 20 concerts in 2009. The Ripple Effect brings together about ten of the best moments of this tour. Fleck and Diabaté seem to get along like gangbusters, dialoguing and rivaling in skill, mixing all the styles of their respective countries, country, blues, Malian and Appalachian folk, bluegrass… quoting melodies from each other’s traditions to end with a cheerful version of the famous banjo-and-guitar exchange from the film Deliverance.
The Ripple Effect is available on double vinyl, or with the Throw Down Your Heart: The Complete Africa Sessions compilation, which includes three CDs and a DVD of the film.