Monday, January 10, 2011

Throw Down Your Heart

Last night after watching Once Upon a Mattress (Abby's pick), I was allowed to choose something to watch while Abby finished knitting a time-sensitive scarf. After a false start with Darkon, I landed on Bela Fleck's Throw Down Your Heart. This was an excellent choice.

Throw Down Your Heart follows banjo musician Bela Fleck as he travels through Africa, searching out the origins of his instrument and playing with local musicians. The search for the ancestors of the banjo was interesting enough, but even better was listening to the fantastic music that results from musicians of different backgrounds playing together. True to Fleck's pre-trip thoughts, the banjo blends in well with the other instruments he encountered.

Normally movies that center around just music lose my interest quickly (see: Schultze Gets the Blues, Once, Fantasia), but Throw Down Your Heart was oddly compelling. (A brief aside: When I was young, I thought Fantasia was a good maturity test, so I would periodically try to watch it to see if I was an adult yet. I never passed, and I still don't know if I would.) In addition to the wonderful music, the musicians Fleck played with were interviewed and told some of their stories. They took Fleck around to different sites and explained the significance of them. He saw key links in the slave trade. One of the musicians explained that the banjo's ancestor is what kept many slaves alive as they left their homeland because the instrument and its music provided hope on the voyage. The most poignant moment for me was when one of the musicians took Fleck to his home village and to the grave of his father. The musician and Fleck played a beautiful song together, which Fleck took to be just a jam session, but afterward the man was crying because the song was about his father. Over and over the power of music was reiterated, and I was reminded that something beautiful can still result from pain.

It was especially interesting to see Fleck and many of the musicians he played with being unable to communicate in words, but using music as their language. I've often heard that music bridges language gulfs, but it was nice to see it firsthand. The movie is subtitled, and the songs that have words are not in English, but I almost with the songs weren't subtitled. They lost their poetry (and some of the power) in stiff English translation. And the songs' subjects were often clearer through the music than they would have been in words. It reminded me of something Kurt Vonnegut said: "Every author is a failed musician."

I saw there's a soundtrack for the movie, which I will probably try to get eventually. (This song was especially good because the banjo blends well in it.) I don't think you have to be a banjo fan to enjoy Throw Down Your Heart, but it couldn't hurt.

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