A Banjo Pioneer Jams with African Musicians
February 18, 2010

Béla Fleck and The Africa Project
The Granada, Dallas
Wednesday, February 10
8:00 p.m.

The crowd was respectfully excited when Béla Fleck appeared on stage alone. He smiled and waved shyly and picked up his banjo, perching himself on the stool stage center. He began playing without a word of introduction. Mr. Fleck turned the Granada Theatre into his bedroom as he improvised for about ten minutes in one key.

The impromptu was a window into the mind of a musician with a seemingly bottomless reserve of imaginative melodies. There were some hesitancies but these minor stumbles are almost desirable as they add to the listener’s sensation that Mr. Fleck is saying something unique, something that will be heard only tonight, something that could be said only at that time.

Mr. Fleck handed over the stage to two Tanzanian musicians, the blind ilimba player, Anania Ngoliga, and the guitar-playing President of the Tanzanian Musicians’ Network, John Kitime. Their sound was pure sunshine, and it brought an immediate smile to my face. The ilimba is a Wagogo thumb-piano, a member of the little-known lamellophone family. Mr. Ngoliga’s technique is a tour de force of prestidigitation. Using only his thumbs, he plays thirty-second note runs up and down the pentatonic scale of the instrument.

Returning to the stage, Mr. Fleck joined his guests, playing a song by Mr. Ngoliga about two women, one who sounds like a chicken, the other a radio. Mr. Ngoliga sang, having fun shaping his voice, both in range and in tone, singing extremely high and low…and like a chicken. Mr. Kitime also sang harmonies; their singing was impressive considering the polyrhythmic accompaniment that they themselves provided.

Mr. Fleck then introduced a group from Mali named N’goni Ba, fronted by Bassekou Kouate. The annoying and embarrassing silences in Mr. Kouate’s solo opening were due to a damaged cable. The other three n’goni players of N’goni Ba showed on stage wearing wireless mic packs, which revealed The Granada’s staff’s mistake as a matter of ill-planning and carelessness. After suffering through the pops and skips, the group entered in full force, the depth of their layered sound coming from four n’goni (the “African banjo,” as Mr. Fleck cheerfully calls it) players, two percussionists, and the lead singer, Ami Sacko, who happens to be Mr. Kouate’s wife.

Mr. Kouate played as if he were the long lost cousin of Jimi Hendrix, at one point using a kind of wah-wah pedal. N’goni Ba wore elaborate orange and gold robes; the other n’goni players provided the bass and some harmonies as they danced; the percussionists kept impeccable time with pristine articulation; and Mrs. Sacko’s full-bodied voice swept over the whole group.

After a brief intermission, the crowd, having imbibed more, became a little too raucous for Mr. Fleck’s second improvisational demonstration. He played some mellow ideas on the cello banjo, ending in some soft-spoken remarks thanking the audience for listening to him, as if apologizing for interrupting their drinking conversation. Mr. Fleck improvised one more song alone, on the standard banjo, using only the tuners to change the pitch. The piece was beautiful in the realm of skill and sound.

The show ended with several songs involving all of the musicians, including the fiddler Casey Driessen. They played a mixture of Tanzanian and Malian traditional music and bluegrass. The special treat of the evening were the grooves of complicated, intricate, and fascinating polyrhythms, patterns built on various claves.

The encore was a song that had recently won, Mr. Fleck humbly told the audience, a Grammy for best pop instrumental. He quickly added that they had not discovered what that meant. The confusion is well-deserved because the song is neither “popular” music nor is it strictly instrumental, yet somehow the Grammy committee recognized the meritable musicianship of all members of Mr. Fleck’s African Project.