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Last published at August 6, 2009 at 4:07 PM

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Movie review

Documentary 'Throw Down Your Heart' plucks musical connections among cultures

"Throw Down Your Heart" is a fascinating and delightful documentary that tracks banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck on a journey through Africa and his unique collaborations with traditional and folk musicians.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Throw Down Your Heart," a documentary by Sascha Paladino. 97 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Northwest Film Forum; see Page 17.

Béla Fleck at Jazz Alley

Want to see the banjo virtuoso in person? He performs with kora player Toumani Diabaté at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave., Seattle; $35 (206-441-9729 or

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It's a common misperception that the banjo's roots are planted in the American South.

Slaves made the first versions of the modern banjo to bring music into their bleak existence. Their templates were the ancient, hollow gourd stringed instruments of Africa.

In "Throw Down Your Heart," American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck traces the connection with a musical tour through Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali, soaking up traditional sounds and styles all the way.

Carrying a boyish sense of wonder and a musicologist's hunger for anything new, Fleck shares his fingerpicking genius with a coterie of natives, many of whom have never seen or heard a banjo.

But Fleck is also truly interested in gaining the knowledge and insight of his collaborators. In dusty villages or makeshift shanties, he carries on a string of musical conversations that are improvised or carefully crafted in a spiritual back-and-forth of melodious dialects.

There's a lot of music in "Throw Down," with just enough exposition of character to appreciate the traditional legacy his collaborators bring to the lessons.

His banjo is a remarkable foil for a variety of African pop and folk styles. Fleck finds the nuance of harmony whether he's accompanying a 12-foot marimba or a chorus of kalimba finger pianos.

It's a pure delight to watch him pluck along and find common ground with a primitive three-string aktonting or xalam — the modern banjo's proto ancestors.

Unlike the experiments Paul Simon and others have used to homogenize world music, Fleck has no agenda for making a pop statement (although his sojourn did result in an album).

This is an honest journey into discovery that reveals the connection music brings between cultures where commonality is not always easy to find.

Ted Fry:

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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