The Banjo's Roots May Be Further East Than Even Africa | WGLT

The Banjo's Roots May Be Further East Than Even Africa

Jan 31, 2020

Bluegrass is what drew Béla Fleck to the banjo. He heard the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the “Dueling Banjos” as a kid, and said he felt compelled to pick up the instrument. He never put it down, and today is considered one of the world’s foremost banjo players.

Currently touring with his wife, Abigail Washburn, the duo stops in Bloomington Tuesday for a one-night only concert at the Castle Theatre.

The banjo has long been affiliated with bluegrass and the musical traditions of Appalachia, but much of Fleck’s career has been focused on exploring the multicultural roots of “America’s instrument.”

“The banjo came over to the Americas from West Africa with the slave trade. Those instruments were adopted by white folks as time went on, and became the instruments that American music was really created on,” said Fleck. “There was no guitar back then, you couldn’t carry a piano down the lonesome prairie or into the mountains, so the banjo was perfect for travelling.”

Fleck, a native New Yorker, became well known for his work with the bands New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. He’s spent time Africa and India, as well as Ireland and Scotland to learn the shared histories of plucked stringed instruments across cultures.

“There are instruments in India that are very much like banjos,” he said. "Pete Seeger once told me that the banjo came to Africa from Mesopotamia, basically Iraq, through the trade routes. I said, ‘Are you really telling me America’s instrument is from Iraq?’ and he said yeah. That was his historical perspective on it. Ask different people, and they’ll give you a different answer,” said Fleck.

With two young children Banjo guru Bela Fleck said he and musical partner and spouse Abigail Washburn are limiting concert appearances.
Credit Jim McGuire / Bela Fleck

An equally impressive musician and vocalist, Washburn was born in Evanston, and grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and Minnesota. She majored in East Asian studies at Colorado College. With a background in old time music, Washburn is deeply invested in the intersection of banjo and zither, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. 

Fleck and Washburn began touring together in 2013 and have since released two studio albums.

“It was an incredible first couple years,” Fleck said. “We played a lot. We got our groove. We figured out how to make the music together — how to make a double banjo and vocal into something that worked. …It took a lot of just doing it to find our rhythm. And then we won a Grammy doing it, which didn’t hurt.”

That was in 2016, when Fleck and Washburn earned the award for best folk album—the most recent of Fleck’s 15 Grammys. 

With two young children, Juno, 6, and Theo, 1, Fleck and Washburn have scaled back the number of concerts they play together. “It’s much more challenging than having the one guy was,” he says. “That was challenging too, but we tended to travel on a tour bus with almost all the travel we’ve done up to now.”

Fleck spoke to WGLT on the heels of a European tour, which included long, overseas flights with both kids.

“When Juno was little, we could do anything we wanted, and we did,” said Fleck.

Fleck said his bluegrass background informs much of the music he and Washburn make together, but they don’t call it bluegrass.

“People can bring their own perceptions to the gig. If they love bluegrass, they’re going to hear that feeling in it. If they’re not sure they like it, they might not really know what it is that’s giving it that forward lean, or that push some of the songs have. There’re also the people that love old time music that are not really such fans of bluegrass, and there’s a lot of that buried in this mix, too. That’s Abby’s background, and not mine. The key is to make it all work together.”

On March 27 Fleck will re-release an extended version of his 2009 documentary film, “Throw Down Your Heart.” The film, part of a new box set called “The Complete Africa Sessions,” is accompanied by a brand new album called “The Ripple Effect,” a collaboration between Fleck and kora master Toumani Diabaté. (Kora is a stringed West African instrument.)

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