Over a decade ago, Béla Fleck set across Africa to explore the roots of the banjo and experienced what he later called “a nonstop set of intense, powerful and joyful musical interactions.” But when passing through Bamako, Mali, one musician he sought proved elusive: Toumani Diabaté, master of the kora, an ancestor of the banjo with 21 strings.
“[Diabaté] was one of few people who was not available when I was there,” Fleck wrote in the liner notes of Throw Down Your Heart: The Complete Africa Sessions, a comprehensive 2020 boxed set of music from the trip. “We had not had the chance to develop the promising musical rapport which actually began at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 2008.”
After a documentary about Fleck’s trip, Throw Down Your Heart, was released that year and he embarked on two tours with African musicians, the two musicians reunited and played a run of dates as a duo in 2009. The recordings from that tour sat on a shelf for 11 years but now have been released on The Ripple Effect, available both as a standalone double LP and as the third disc on The Complete Africa Sessions.
The Ripple Effect is tranquil and melodic. Free of the rejoicing singers or clattering djembes heard elsewhere on the boxed set, it comes across as a joyful hang between two virtuosos. On gems like “Nashville,” “Snug Harbor,” and “Kauonding Sissoko,” Fleck launches into a gently zippy solo and Diabaté cools his jets with a peaceful curlicue.
Because Fleck and Diabaté never showboat or play over each other, The Ripple Effect flies through its hour-long runtime. On the closer, a humorous romp through the Deliverance standard “Dueling Banjos,” the two maestros prove that their instruments—one inseparable from Appalachia, the other from West Africa—aren’t so different from each other.