Film and TV

"Throw Down Your Heart" Into A New World Of Sound

No Festival Required has had many homes over the years, its screenings hosted by so many different venues that its director, Steve Weiss, often refers to it as "the floating crap game of cinema". 

Over the past year, one of its reliable haunts has been the Phoenix Art Museum, where Weiss has been putting on free screenings of films at the Whiteman Hall. 

This Sunday NFR will be showing "Throw Down Your Heart", a documentary by Sascha Paladino, chronicling banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck's trip to Africa and his playing and recording music alongside a diverse array of African musicians.

Now, you may be like me and not give even a fraction of a shit about Bela Fleck or the music he plays. The good news is that the film is very enjoyable on its own, and doesn't require any appreciation or knowledge of Bela Fleck to get into its groove. The film opens a window into the staggering amount of music drifting through African cities and villages, places where music is such a constant presence that one folk musician said that even when folks mourn their dead, "their cries are musical".

What really makes the film worth seeing is all the strange instruments and sounds Bela finds in Africa. Thumb pianos, an instrument that looks like a giant wooden mallet with a string to pluck and saw on its side, a giant wooden xylophone that has a dozen men beating out its notes, and several stringed gourd instruments that look and sound like ancestors of the banjo. And then there's the singing: guttural Masai whoops and howls, folk musicians singing bleak and soulful songs about dead fathers, women chanting joyous work songs while washing a mountain of dishes.

All this exotic sound and unfamiliar instrumentation is a good thing, because they carry the film and make it a compelling watch in ways that Bela can't. The thing about Bela Fleck is that Bela is about as compelling and memorable a screen presence as Zeppo Marx. He seems like a nice fella, and he has lightning fingers on the banjo, but there are trees standing in African village shots that are more interesting to watch than Bela Fleck when he isn't playing music. 

His blandness does prove to be an asset, however, because it helps the film to nimbly sidestep a potential political-correctness minefield. The minefield in question being that the premise of the film had the potential to turn into yet another patronizing "bored yet earnest Western white person amongst poor minorities in Third World nations, learning how to appreciate life more through their simplicity and grace" travelogue. 

Or to put into simpler terms, courtesy of the Sex Pistols, this could have easily been a "cheap holiday in other people's misery". The fact that Bela is kind of a dull dude makes it so the film is about everyone else but him; instead of listening to some clueless middle-aged white dude rhapsodizing about how ennobling and profound this experience is for him, we get to listen to the African musicians speak and sing for themselves.

"Throw Down Your Heart" is worth your time if you love unusual sounds, sights, and hearing the life stories of interesting and extremely talented musicians. 

My only lingering beef with the film is that while the banjo's African origin is used as the reason for the trip, that origin is never really explored or addressed in any depth. We see instruments that probably evolved into the banjo, but aside from a brief conversation about slave-ships, we never get any insight into how the banjo basically became synonymous with America and virtually forgotten in its birthplace. That seems like it could be a very interesting story, and I would have gladly traded in 20 or so minutes of the film's footage of Bela jamming with musicians in exchange for a bit of banjo history.

"Throw Down Your Heart" is playing at the Phoenix Art Museum on Sunday, June 27th. Free admission, doors open at 12:30, show starts at 1pm with a special introduction by African music curator Amanda Villepastour from The Museum Of Musical Instruments.

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Ashley Naftule