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Bela Fleck and the African Project

If there is one word that might sum up jazz, it is improvisation. But that quality is not unique to jazz alone. Musical styles from around the world feature improvisation as a critical element. And it was improvisation that played such an important role and made for some of the best moments in the African Project concert hosted by Bela Fleck in Kansas City’s Uptown Theater, a lovingly restored Mediterranean-style movie palace (famous a few decades back for its copyrighted “FragaTone” process that pumped smells into the theatre to “enhance” the entertainment experience).

Fleck has made a career out of hopping across musical boundaries, so it was really just a matter of time before he found himself hopping across the ocean to discover the music of Africa. It was a logical step as well, as the banjo traces its origins to that continent. A small bit of priming, hearing a CD by acclaimed Malian singer Oumou Sangare, and his fate was sealed.

That fate, however, was not instantaneous. This third project in the Flecktone-less, genre-hopping Acoustic Planet series first got underway back in 2005 with a five-week visit to Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and Mali. Fleck returned with some 250 hours of film and 40 pieces with a variety of musicians. Since then, he’s turned all that into the multimedia Throw Down Your Heart extravaganza: a CD released in March; a film directed by his younger brother, Sascha Paladino, currently traveling the festival and independent theatre circuit and set for DVD release in October; and then a 15-city East and Midwestern tour that brought him to Kansas City for this carefully structured, brilliantly executed three-hour performance that built from the intimate to the regal and, finally, joyous.

Though it was his name that brought people through the door, Fleck served more as congenial host than as star or center of the show. After an opening solo (an intriguing improvisation on Gambian tunes that alternately sounded like classical, bluegrass, jazz and African music, a sensation that would recur throughout the night), he offered informed, yet succinct introductions to help orient the audience. Then each performer did two songs before Fleck joined them for a set of consistently intriguing pieces together.

First up was ilimba (a larger Tanzanian thumb piano) player and vocalist Anania Ngoliga with John Kitime, guitarist and vocalist with the long-running and popular Kilimanjaro Band. Ngoliga, also featured in the film, is a remarkable musician and perhaps even more astonishing singer, doing something jazz audiences would hear as akin to scat, with tongue flutters and notes soaring from bird whistle highs to guttural lows. There was a sweet, lyrical quality to their songs, accentuated by Ngoliga’s warmth and impish charm.

D’Gary (joined by percussionist Mario) began playing professionally in his teens and is renowned in Madagascar for his unique approach to traditional music and ability to capture the sounds of Malagasy instruments on the guitar. In 1991, when David Lindley and Henry Kaiser went to Madagascar to record, D’Gary was among those featured on the three volume A World out of Time series they produced. These were among the first releases outside the island nation, and helped fuel an international career for this fleet-fingered, finger-style guitarist and draw attention to the spiky and lively Malagasy music he plays. D’Gary and Mario were joined by Fleck and fiddler Casey Driessen (Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Darol Anger) for “Kinetsa,” a song the four recorded in Nashville prior to Fleck’s African trip. Despite (or perhaps because of) some initial microphone problems, Driessen delivered an impressive solo that showcased the seemingly improbable, but entirely seamless connection between bluegrass and African music.

Acclaimed South African singer, songwriter, guitarist, and anti-apartheid and AIDS activist Vusi Mahlasela is a captivating performer with an engagingly sandpapery voice. He conveys a certain gravity or presence, calling to mind in both style and substance a young Harry Belafonte. His songs, including “Thula Mama,” dedicated to his redoubtable grandmother and like many pieces in the show also featured on the Heart CD, showcased his distinctive blend of singer-songwriter, South African, jazz and folk traditions.

Finally, resplendent in traditional golden robes, kora player Toumani Diabaté performed. A descendent of 71 generations of griots, Diabaté is no stranger to international collaborations, having partnered with nuevo flamenco group Ketama, bluesman Taj Mahal, idiosyncratic popster Björk, free jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, and mentor, friend and Malian musical legend Ali Farka Touré. Diabaté deconstructed the instrument for the audience, though his illustration of how a mere four fingers provide bass, melody and improvisation failed to entirely explain the spellbinding tapestry of sound he creates on this 21-string harp.

The concert concluded with two enthusiastic numbers with the entire ensemble.

Stepping aside to let these musicians and their music speak for themselves was both a generous and significant gesture from Fleck. Some two decades since Paul Simon launched a similar effort with Graceland, only a relatively small audience that seemed largely unfamiliar with this music or these astonishing, internationally renowned musicians could be summoned for this event. The small circuit of clubs and labels that feature world music now face even more hurdles with a shrinking press and small handful of world programs on public, college, community or internet stations. One also wonders if the current economic crisis (and perhaps attendant psychological retreat to the familiar) will make this all the more difficult. So all the more important for Fleck to have invested so much, both literally and personally, in this project. There are rumors that future tours with other African musicians may be in the works. Let’s hope Fleck finds a way to do it.

Originally Published