Bela Fleck: Nomadic Instincts

Banjo player on his trips to Africa and his relation to spirituality in an excerpt from the Innerviews: Music Without Borders book

Seeking fresh horizons for the banjo is a hallmark of Béla Fleck’s storied career. From his 1980s tenure with bluegrass innovators New Grass Revival, to inventive solo output that’s seen him integrate the banjo into classical, pop, country, and countless global musics, to the everything-and-the-kitchen sink experimentation of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, he has helped to reestablish the banjo as a cool, contemporary and cutting edge instrument. In 2005, he traveled to Africa to trace the roots of the banjo, resulting in the multiple Grammy award-winning 2009 album Throw Down Your Heart. In this excerpt from my book Innerviews: Music Without Borders, Fleck provides insight into his demanding creative process, what he learned while traveling in Africa, and his take on spirituality.

Bela Fleck in performance at Litchfield Jazz Festival 2010
By Nathan Turner
Bela Fleck

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I understand you tend to be very self-critical when it comes to writing.

When I compose, I write a lot of stuff I’m unsatisfied with. I might think it’s kind of nice, but not good enough, so I have to keep pushing and pushing until I come up with something that is really special as a composition. And in the studio, I’ll do take after take after take until I think I really have something good happening. I tend to hone in on sections and keep playing them and troubleshoot until everything falls in place perfectly and it feels like a great weave. I might record 100 solos to get into an area I haven’t been in before or to complete a thought in a way I haven’t done before. The solo might be just a minute-and-a-half long, but I’ll go back and listen to those 100 takes to figure out what was good, what wasn’t good, what I like and what I don’t like about my playing. Sometimes it won’t be until takes 91 through 94 before I find something I think is decent. There’s a critical element in putting it all together too. I like to edit takes together to ensure all the best live moments that happened in the studio are captured in a song.

In other words, you have a serious perfectionist streak.

It’s a working style that developed along the way. Maybe it’s a justification for being a picky little creep over the years. [laughs] People used to say to me “Hey, that’s fine. That’s good enough. Stop.” And I’d go “I don’t want to stop because I’m not done.” That approach made me very resentful in the early days because I felt a lot of pressure to accept whatever happened on the live track or to accept one of the first overdubs I did just to not bore the other people in the room or put them through the hell I was going through because I wasn’t satisfied. I think musicians who do a lot of recording have gone through periods where they just weren’t happy with what they do and everybody tells them what they did is fine. Then the record comes out and you listen to it and go “I should never have let them make me keep that solo. It’s just not good enough.” Other times, you think “That was fine. What was my problem?” There is a lot of psychological stuff that goes into this. You have to manage yourself in order to accurately assess if you’re doing something positive or negative.

Tell me about some of the musical perspectives you brought back with you from Africa.

The most important thing I witnessed is how music fits into the lives of Africans. Everyone plays music. It’s part of what happens in a day in a village. They have songs for different things that happen—songs for the morning, for birth, and to teach kids what to watch out for when they grow up. We have some similar ideas in our folk songs, but they come from that African root. The trip also helped me move into a place of letting go of control. As you can tell from our conversation, I’m very much for fighting for control to make things as good as I can make them. I am usually very well rehearsed when I approach a musical situation, but this was a case where I couldn’t always do that. I had to trust in the moment, which I really enjoyed doing. The truth is I sometimes get too prepared and rehearsed, and it doesn’t actually help the music. So, part of this was about letting things go and allowing music to happen.

How have you evolved as a musician since the beginning of The Flecktones?

I’m not sure I’m a better one, but I make different choices today. Edgar Meyer and I were talking about how most of the brilliant work done by brilliant people is done in their twenties. That’s frustrating for people in their forties to consider. Certain things I came up with earlier had a simplicity or directness that’s harder for me to get to now. I’ve been looking for things on the banjo for 30 years now, so it’s sometimes harder to find something I haven’t done before, so the choices are more subtly different than they used to be. I am rejecting more things that seem overly complicated or sappy for no reason. I’m always trying to get into a direct, focused, pure kind of writing. That’s what I’m always hoping for.

You’ve said you consider music something that “helps you create a path to yourself.” Tell me about that philosophy.

When I said that, I was trying to get to the point of what music was about for me and it’s a heavy question to ponder. For some of us, music has a spiritual element to it. It’s definitely that way for me. If I treat it that way, then the goal of music is to express who I am on the Earth in one way or another. It’s a lofty goal and it doesn’t always work out that way. When you listen to someone’s music, you hear a whole lot of who they are in it. You can also hear if someone is insecure when they play too much or if they’re too busy on their instrument. You can also hear where they’ve evolved to in a lot of ways. Some people are naturally deep souls and it comes out in the music.

The complete interview is published in Innerviews: Music Without Borders book available from the Abstract Logix web site.

1 Comment

  • Nov 02, 2010 at 10:26PM Signe Crawford

    BF: "There's a lot of psychological stuff that goes into this."

    This is something I've been wondering about for about 50 years. Why are musicians so invested in their own versions of what's happening, musically? One guy is thinking it's "doot do do doot doot do," and another guy thinks it's "do doot do doot doot do", and they're becoming belligerent and irrational over their own understanding of it. They're just notes, and they're not going to hurt anybody!! Why come so unglued? I'm the same way, and I view my own frustration as a sign of mental instability, to some degree.

    Now I'm learning about the brain/music connection, and I think I'm finally getting it figured out. Last weekend I was listening to CBC Radio 2, and there was an article I half-caught, concerning the high percentage of certifiable craziness that was inherent in the greatest composers. I'd like to see a study of which category each of them would have been assigned to by today's mental health specialists. Would they be bi-polar, psychotic, schizophrenic, or merely neurotic? Schumann died in a mental institution. The list they reeled off was impressive.

    This bit of information in conjunction with the new research on the chemical nature of our emotions, are getting to the nub of the question. Whenever we experience an emotion, the brain emits specific chemicals which are received by all of the cells in our bodies. Each and every cell has a special receptor which receives its own specific chemical. It's like the chemical is the key, and the receptor is the keyhole. The good chemicals, i.e. the ones that make us feel pleasure, are the same chemicals as those prescribed by psychiatrists, and also, they're the same as the ones you can buy in the streets. Of course, it's healthier to create your own chemicals, and you can't really overdose on your own production of seratonin, dopamine, and the like. These days, though, if you're not producing your own set of happy chemicals, you can be prescribed Prozac or whatnot, and often you can regain mental health. But it's now believed that if the great composers were alive in today's world, they wouldn't have produced their musical wonderments. The reason for this is that they were treating their own mental disorders with their MUSIC and their COMPOSITION! We've always been aware that there is a connection between music and our emotions. You couldn't have a good movie without the music. It's the music that gets to the core of the feelings the actors are portraying, more even than the words they utter. We all understand that. But to think that the composers were self-medicating, well, to me that points to the fact that it's also central to our core, to our mental health, and to our overall well-being. So when you feel like ripping someone's eyes out because they're not playing their 16th notes evenly, think of the chemicals. It's really quite astounding.

    By the way, if you've ever seen the DVD of Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer on the road together (Obstinato), you can witness two of the planet's most evolved musicians becoming mental over their conflicting musical concepts. It can reduce even them to the level of mortal humans.

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