Perhaps Béla Fleck's most daring experiment in musical communication was a 2006 trip to Africa. Curious to explore the African roots of the banjo, and eager to play with African musicians on their home turf, Fleck took recording equipment along, as well as a film crew directed by his brother, Sascha Paladino. The result was Throw Down Your Heart, an award-winning documentary of the trip, as well as two albums: 2009’s Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3 – Africa Sessions, and Throw Down Your Heart, Africa Sessions Part 2, Unreleased Tracks, which was issued the following year.
Simply put, the project was a sensation. There were, of course, raves from the press — “traditional African music turns out to suit him beautifully” pronounced The New York Times — but fellow musicians were equally awed. “Béla Fleck's amazing film Throw Down Your Heart makes me want to go to Africa,” said acclaimed jazz pianist Chick Corea. “The genuine warmth, affinity, respect and love between Béla and the amazing African musicians he met are beautifully captured.” Banjo-player and actor Steve Martin added, “With Throw Down Your Heart, Béla Fleck has contributed significantly to the history of the banjo, as well as inventing a style of music never before played on this great instrument.”
Now, both albums and the film have been included in Fleck’s newest release, Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions – Complete Edition. But that’s not all. In addition to a DVD that augments the original documentary fresh commentary by Fleck and Paladino as well as an hour of additional video footage, the set includes a third album: The Ripple Effect, Throw Down Your Heart Part 3. Drawn from a series of duo performances Fleck made with Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté in 2009, these previously-unavailable recordings bring a whole new level of intercultural virtuosity to the Throw Down Your Heart saga.
That tour was, for Fleck, one of the highlights of the project. He had met Diabaté in 2008 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where he asked the kora player to join him in giving a workshop. “Our initial interactions immediately revealed great potential as a duo,” Fleck writes in the liner notes. “His incredible soloing ability was offset by astonishing supportive abilities, and an overall elegance that blew me away.”
Fleck had hoped to hook up with Diabaté again during his trip to Mali, but their schedules didn’t align. “He was one of few people who was not available when I was there,” he writes. “He had overdubbed on a couple of tracks after the fact, so that he could be a part of the album, but we had not had the chance to develop the promising musical rapport which actually began at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.”
Diabaté was part of the small-group tour Fleck assembled after the release of the first Throw Down Your Heart album in 2009, but it wasn’t until the two went out as a duo later that year that their full potential was realized. From the first notes of the gently upbeat “Bamako,” in which the shimmering sound of Diabaté’s kora echoed by the tart twang of Fleck’s banjo, it’s clear that these two are not only equally matched in terms of instrumental ability but are also utterly simpatico in terms of their rhythmic and melodic sensibilities. The Ripple Effect closes with the two trading increasingly elaborate licks until one jaw-droppingly virtuosic fusillade from Diabaté prompts Fleck to crack, “You know this means war,” and the track turns into a world-spanning rendition of “Dueling Banjos.” Listening to it, one is amazed Fleck waited this long to release the track.