It took some time to pack the full house into EMPAC‚ RPI's amazing new performance space‚ so things got started late. No matter: All Béla Fleck had to do was stick his head out the Stage Right exit door‚ and all was forgiven. Fleck sat alone at Center Stage and began to play what sounded like an improvisation‚ tossing out odd-sounding chord changes as he went‚ occasionally adopting an expression that said‚ "Hmmmm… that's interesting!" Influences seemed to flash by as he played: Classical music‚ bluegrass‚ jazz‚ and drone. It was only at the end that Fleck told us it was music from Tanzania.
Like many Fleckheads‚ I would have been happy to listen to Fleck play solo acoustic all night. But this show wasn't about Béla - it was about the sensational sounds and musicians he found on the 2005 journey to Africa that is at the root of Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder Records‚ 2009). Working from written notes‚ Béla then introduced Tanzanian musicians Anania Ngoglia and John Kitme. Kitme (a guitarist who helped Fleck meet up with Ngoglia and other Tanzanian players) led Anania -- who is blind -- to a set of seats to Fleck's right. "This is Anania Ngoglia‚" Kitme informed us in a soft‚ lilting voice. "Béla's told you about him‚ and now he's going to show you what he can do."
What Ngoglia does is play the thumb piano‚ a square-ish instrument about the size of a small laptop; Tanzanian herdsmen play it in the fields‚ and it creates a tinny‚ percussive sound that instantly gets your attention. The dimly-lit stage had a campfire atmosphere as Kitme accompanied and sang along with Ngoglia. Anania has a high‚ reedy voice with undeniable power‚ and his swooping vocalizations threw splashes of joy onto everything he performed. During the closer "Sing‚ Africa" and the rousing encore that followed‚ Ngoglia also played harmonica in Little Stevie Wonder's two-handed style.
Unlike Ngoglia and Kitme‚ D'Gary is not a complete stranger to this area: The towering guitarist and his percussionist/co-vocalist Mario played a mesmerizing electric duo set at Freihofer's Gazebo stage in 2005. D'Gary played acoustic here‚ beginning with a beautifully introspective ex tempore segment before shifting to a bubbling‚ fast-as-light foundation pattern. Mario's instrument looked like a broken maraca‚ but the broken glass inside the instrument made it sound like a hand-held steam engine. When superimposed on D'Gary's delicious fingerpicking‚ the piece went extraterrestrial in a hurry. "Well‚ that was badass‚" Fleck declared when he came out to play with the duo.
If a star had to be chosen from Béla's bright array‚ it had to be Vusi Mahlasela‚ a South African singer-songwriter with the political consciousness of Phil Ochs and the presence of B.B. King. Mahlasela has a broad‚ powerful voice that can serenade in a soft bright tenor one minute‚ then sound like a pissed-off lion the next. With nothing but an acoustic guitar for support‚ Vusi's music made you want to stand up and throw your fists in the air. A longtime activist‚ Mahlasela spoke at length about the horrors of apartheid‚ and cited Nelson Mandela‚ Bishop Tutu‚ and Ghandi as those who taught him‚ "There is forgiveness in all of us‚ and we should all wear it like a crown."
The "missing link" in Fleck's search for the banjo's history appeared when Malian kora master Toumani Diabate came onstage. The kora looks like a prehistoric mandolin‚ but it's so big you have to play it sitting down. The multi-stringed instrument has the delicacy and sound of a harp‚ but thanks to a drum-like chamber at its base‚ it has a low end that automatically establishes a foundation. Diabate's music was utterly hypnotic‚ evoking the drone of Indian Carnatic music as he expanded his solo piece until time just stopped.
Fleck played with all the groups‚ both during their individual segments and on the final two numbers. But even when he brought out Sparrow Quartet fiddler Chris Driessen for a few numbers‚ the object wasn't to impose Western sounds on African musical forms. Everything Fleck played was entirely in keeping with whatever his partners were doing; in fact‚ there were moments where it was obvious Fleck was wondering where the music was going‚ and whether he'd come out the other end. "I don't know what was going on with that‚" he laughed with relief after one number with D'Gary.
That's one of the reasons why Fleck is a cut above: he is utterly fearless‚ and will step into unfamiliar situations if it means learning something new. Whether this music was new to them or not‚ the crowd at EMPAC shared a joyous experience on this night. For those who've followed Fleck over three decades‚ though‚ it was just another high-water mark on a career that remains happily indefinable.