Béla Fleck, jazz/bluegrass banjo player, embarks on an African adventure in Sascha Paladino’s documentary Throw Down Your Heart, distinguishing himself from prior excursions to the Dark Continent by David Lindley and Trey Anastasio with a pseudo-scholarly premise: Fleck means to explore the banjo’s roots by juxtaposing his own improvisational intuition with that of regional virtuosos. It’s a prospectus thinner than the lightest gauge string, surely; while the instrument evolved out of African luthier traditions brought to the U.S. during the Triangle Trade, the five-stringed mutation that Fleck plays is probably more the product of Irish-Scottish drone influence on Southern plantation slaves. But Fleck makes clear at his first stop in Uganda that academic discovery is not the goal, making only subjective references to the similarities between his own trademark “bluebop” style and that of his rural hosts. The project is simply a grand excuse for Fleck’s chops to collaborate with other unique musicians.
Even revising the trip’s ostensible goal of “bringing the banjo back to Africa,” however, it’s hard to identify the purpose of releasing this HD video documentation. The film fails as a personal diary due to Fleck’s unflappable aloofness, and the performance footage is rendered unsatisfying by frequent interjections of expository material or cutaways to seaside B-roll that seems photographed for tourist brochures. Fleck recorded an entire album’s worth of material in Africa (most of it enjoyable, some of it transcendent), which has been released concurrently on CD, and the film rarely manages to capture the progressive spirit and joyous élan of those tracks, or their respective geneses. Notable exceptions are riveting in-studio meetings between the banjoist and two of Africa’s most celebrated musical geniuses, Anania Ngoglia (undisputed master of the thumb piano) and singer Oumou Sangare. Observing Fleck and the latter slowly feel their way through the graceful, plaintive “Djorolen”—mercifully uninterrupted by needless crosscutting—may be the solitary moment in which the film matches the unhindered passion of its titular command.
Elsewhere, Fleck manages to dredge up some fascinating, indigenous musical traditions, such as a tribal ritual involving a massive marimba that keeps the visiting Americans up at night, but very little else, suggesting that the movie would have been more appropriate as a documentary supplement to the album rather than an autonomous release. This also would have drawn less attention to the moments of blatant poverty pornography that threaten to expose Fleck as either ignorant of or indifferent to Africa’s bounty of humanitarian issues. As with so many other modern field recorders, he drives a Jeep into destitute villages, sets up a temporary digital studio, and vanishes with lossless gems tucked safely in his hard drive. But it’s not exploitation: It’s ethnomusicology.