We met with musician Bela Fleck and Director Sascha Paladino to talk about their project Throw Down Your Heart. Bela’s objective in the project was to return the banjo, which has had such an influence in his life, to its African roots, playing along the way with traditional musicians. Sascha was to chronical the journey in film and Bela was to be a musical ambassador. The film was beautifully done and the music amazing. Throw Down Your Heart won the 24 Beats Per Second Audience Award at this years SXSW Film Festival.
AUSTIN DAZE: You made a solo appearance at Maggie Mays, did you play any of the music from your experience in Africa?
BELA FLECK: Yeah, a little bit. I did some Tanzanian music and some things that I wrote both before and after I went to Africa. I just played. It’s funny, most of the music I played in Africa, I played along with them I didn’t always learn the melodies. I would jam along and they would play the melodies. In a lot of cases I would have to learn them that day, write them down, play them looking at the paper or from memory and then the next day I was on to something else. A lot of the music didn’t stay in my head. Now that the movie is out people want to hear me play all the stuff, so I have to pull it together. I worked on a couple of the tunes to play at the show, but I would like to develop a significant live repertoire from the movie.
AD: Sascha, how did the experience of making this film compare to the shorts you have made?
SASCHA PALADINO: This is definitely the biggest project I have ever undertaken. Logistically it was huge. We knew that we wanted to go to four countries in Africa and we had five weeks to do it. It was about figuring it out, connecting all of the dots, how we were going to get from here to there, make sure we get the right musicians. We tried to get all of that out of the way so that when we got there we could make creative decisions about the music and I could think about how I was going to shoot it. There was so much going on at once that some times I felt like my brain was going to explode at times.
BF: I think that both of us were pretty excited when we got on the final flight home. We were like “Whew, we did it, we’re done.” Not only did we get everything we were after, but nobody got hurt.
SP: There were five of us: me, Bela, director of photography Kirsten Johnson, and two sound people, one for the album, Dave Sinko, and one for the film Wellington Bowler.
BF: And then we had field producers in each country as well.
SP: We really were responsible for, not only the footage, but making sure everyone made it. It was a lot of stress, but it was exciting being in Africa and having all of these adventures.
AD: How did people react to the camera?
SP: Most people did not have a problem with it. There wasn’t anyone who said don’t film us, except for Bela.
BF: Oh, yeah, a couple of times I was like “Don’t film.” But I expected more awareness of the camera on them. Like “I’m on camera, I’ll go into some fake persona.”
SP: People were really honest and natural with us. Hopefully what is in the film is that honest interaction between Bela and the people we met. We were working with such a great director of photography, Kirsten Johnson, she had spent a lot of time in Africa. She had a great way about her. She wouldn’t go cameras blazing. She would introduce herself, make sure everyone knew who she was and felt comfortable. Not ask a lot of questions, but just go for it. I learned a lot from her and that became the way we would do it.
AD: I listened to the audio post cards you did for The World on PRI. You mentioned trying to capture the natural spontaneity, how did it work in such a dynamic environment?
BF: Well the cool thing was that they were playing the song so I didn’t have to play the melody. They were playing it; they were singing it. I was looking for what I could add to it rather than feeling like I had to lay it down with them. Now, if I was playing Irish music and everyone was playing a fiddle tune, I would be like I want to learn that tune and I want to play it. The simple reality was that it was impossible for me to know those tunes because I was walking into it that day, or the day before I was taping them and going to my hotel room, or the campsite when we had one, and trying to figure out what on earth I could play that would go with what they did. Sometimes I found that if it was myself responding as if it was a blues jam, or a bluegrass jam, or a jazz jam, I could find something that was very much like me. It sounded like Bela Fleck sitting around with a bunch of African guys and playing music he had never heard, but trying to add something meaningful as it went along. That’s what it sounds like to me. A lot of time the greatest music happens when I don’t know what is happening, even in music I am familiar with. Like with Chick Corea, he’ll throw something at me and I have to respond. So, I tried to approach it like that sometimes and other times I would say I’m really going to learn every note of that melody and we’ll do a unison thing. By trying different approaches the film and the record are going to have a lot of variety. Things like the marimba tune where I learned every single note of it and counterparts, and percussion parts, and played it sometimes. That was a run-on answer.
AD: Do you have plans for a follow up, to get together with the musicians in the film again?
BF: We would like to see what happens. First, we would like to get the film sold and get it out there so that people can find out about this music and all of these great musicians and the whole Throw Down Your Heart thing. We would love it if we could get to the point where we could go back to the places we filmed and show the movie.
SP: It would be a great experience to not only show the people what they contributed to, but to be there to experience them experiencing it. There were a lot of people we made a real meaningful connection with. Down the line, hopefully there will be some musical collaboration.
BF: We are hoping some of these people will be able to come over for some dates. First we have to generate some demand. I have a draw when I play with say, the Flecktones, or someone known, but with people unknown I may not be able to draw enough to make it a really good trip for everybody. Hopefully we can get some energy going with the movie and some promoters say we will put you guys on in a performing art center in the south, and then we start making calls. We are just taking it as it comes and pushing forward. In the film you get to go there, you get to have the experience that we had or the best part of the experience we had, and from the safety of your seat at the Alamo (Draft House).
AD: You had a guard with a machine gun, right?
BF: I remember I said, “What’s this all about?” And it was said, “We don’t want one bad apple to spoil the whole situation.” And I thought, oh yeah.
SP: There were a couple of places in Gambia and Uganda where one hundred miles from us there was armed conflict going on. One of the goals of the film, however, is to not focus on that stuff but to focus on what is great about Africa. There are so many films out there about what is wrong–war, famine–our film is not about that. The film is about a different side of Africa that is beautiful. If we did our job then that will come across in the film.
BF: I think it has come across fairly well. I ran into a couple of film makers from different countries, one from South Africa and one from Norway who said “The best thing about the film was how great I felt.” By the end of the movie they felt really positive.
AD: Could you talk briefly about the title of the film?
BF: The title comes from the name of a town in Tanzania (Bagamoyo) which was the headquarters for the slave trade going east. We always talk about the slave trade going west, but apparently there was even more slave trade going to the far east, so when people who had been taken as slaves would see the ocean they would “throw down their heart” because they realized that they would never see their homeland again.
SP: Where the water meets the land, that’s it.
AD: The image of you standing in the ocean with your banjo directly corresponds to the title.
BF: We actually shot me playing the tune I wrote “Throw Down Your Heart” right there in the ocean. We shot half of it there and we shot the other half of the song on the Atlantic ocean on the west coast of Gambia. We thought we would have a version where we cut back and forth between the two oceans which actually did not end up in the cut of the movie, not because it wasn’t cool, but we couldn’t figure out how we could fit it into the narrative.
BF: Yeah, you can hear the waves from both sides.
AD: You split them in the stereo field?
BF: You start out in one and the banjo is panned to the right for the east coast, then actually they speak to each other, it was in different keys on different banjos, but I worked it out ahead of time so I could make the keys work and have some call and response
SP: Another thing we did is we shot is the east side at sunrise and the west side at sunset, so we could get the sun going down over the water.
AD: That’s really cool. It’s too bad it didn’t make it into the film.
SP: Yeah, its cool, it works well on its own, but stylistically it’s a little different.
AD: How long did the whole project take from logistical planning through completion?
BF: The idea started about two years before we went. I realized I was going to have a year off from the Flecktones and I presented it to Peter Gelb at Sony records who had worked with Sasha on the film with Edgar Myer and said you have got to film this. Unfortunately by the time we actually got to go he had backed out and left us in a lurch with no funds and I had to pay for everything myself, but he did have a big part in encouraging us that we had to film it, and we would be idiotic not to do it. He thought it would be more of a student film, but we were like, let’s make a real movie! We came up with a budget with the kind of crew that we brought, we didn’t want to go over and shoot on a half-ass side. Five years all together. We went to Africa in January of 2005.
BF: Even if we don’t ever see that money again, it’s a really great piece and you can see the quality that was taken in trying to do it right.
AD: Are you planning on going back?
BF: We don’t have a plan yet, but once the movie is actually out we would love to. There is the Zanzibar festival. It would be great to be there.
BF: Very few people saw it before SXSW. It was exciting–people clapped the whole way through and some laughed even at parts we hadn’t thought were funny.
AD: I guess you can feel rather exposed when sitting there watching with all these people who haven’t seen it.
BF: I felt good. I felt really happy just to be playing it. I became a little disassociated. I wasn’t really worried if people would like the movie, I knew they would like it to some extent. The question was how much they would like it. Most people who were there knew who I was so that was a good start. We had a great response.
SP: We had been hearing it in our headphones on our computers for so long, and we had a great sound mixer do the final sound, a guy named Elmo Weber who did the sound mix for Buena Vista Social Club, he just did an amazing job. You go into the theater and it’s in surround sound. Like Bela said it’s the closest you can get to actually being there. We hadn’t experienced the whole thing like that before so it was really neat.***