WE WERE FORTUNATE TO CHAT WITH Béla AT THE OLD SETTLER’S MUSIC FESTIVAL. HE WAS FRIENDLY AND HUMBLE. HERE ARE SOME OF THE WORDS WE SHARED:
AD: You’ve played at Old Settler’s before. What do you think of Old Settler’s?
BF: I like it. It seems like maybe it was more of a bluegrass festival way, way back when I first did it. It’s turned into the kind of music festivals that are in various parts of the country. Lots of roots music. Going for a bigger demographic, but always lots of the core artists and the kinds of music that made it what it is.
AD: What do you think of Austin?
BF: I’ve always loved coming to Austin. It’s always been a great town for things that I do. The Flecktones have always done well here. Back when we started, I think we were playing Liberty Lunch and gradually we worked our way up. Plus, I remember coming here and not ever having a gig here, but playing at Austin City Limits. Coming in for different things, but not really having an audience. But gradually that’s changed. We’ve had some spectacular gigs at Stubb’s. And way, way, way back, I remember playing with Newgrass Revival at Poor David’s Pub on the campus. I don’t know if that’s still there or not. It’s was a small place.
AD: Tell us about your trio project with Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc Ponty.
BF: It’s something where they invited me to join them on some shows and I said yes because I’d listened to them for a long time. In particular, Stanley. When I was a teenager, I went to see Chick Corea and Return to Forever play when I was 17 and Stanley was in that band. That was one of the great performances I’d ever seen and still have ever seen and made me want to play the kind of music I’m playing. So when he called and asked me to play with him, it was a big deal. And I always loved Jean Luc as well. So we’re working on some music together and we’ve had like a ten-day rehearsal period already. You know, it’s going to take work. It’s difficult music we’ve chosen to do. But it’s really interesting. It’s really good. I imagine that it will get really good. I’m looking forward to actually playing some shows and seeing what it is. Right now it’s sort of in the “who knows?” mode. We’re waiting for it to happen. But they’re great and we had a great time together personally and musically.
AD: How was your trip to Africa?
BF: Africa was great. It was one of the highlights of my life going there. I was there for a month and I went to Uganda and Tanzania, to Gambia and Mali. And recorded with people everywhere, often out in the fields, sometimes in people’s houses, sometimes in studios. And I learned a lot and had a lot of great musical adventures.
AD: You’ve played with a lot of different cultures all over the world, playing with their traditional music. Which cultural traditional music have you found to be most challenging to apply to your banjo? And also, which do you enjoy playing the most?
BF: They’re all challenging. Most recently, playing in Africa was challenging because I thought I understood what beat they were on, but when I looked at their feet, they were tapping in a completely different place. So I was surprised. I thought it was simpler than it was. It’s not simple at all. A lot of the music is a counter pulse on top of a pulse and if you don’t understand that, you really aren’t getting it. Eventually I realized it was not going to be possible for me to learn it while I was there the way they were feeling it. And all I could do was find my way to play along, which sounded fine. But it was a different thing from really feeling it. And I find that that’s true because I’m a dabbler. I spend some time with some Indian musicians, I spend a little time with some Chinese musicians, with some African musicians, some musicians from South America, with classical musicians. If I’m really going to do it right, I need to spend years, years at each one of them. And I’m not doing that because there’s so much opportunity for me as a banjo player to play a lot of music that no one’s played before on the banjo and I want to go do those things. And I want to get my feet wet and play with jazz guys and play with Indian guys and African guys. But I don’t want to spend my whole life as an African banjo player or a classical banjo player or a jazz banjo player. I want to move from thing to thing and then soak up elements and then try to find my own expression. Write my own music that takes advantage of all the experiences that I’ve been able to have.
Even in the countries that I went to, in 30 days, how could I possibly even get a sense of everything happening in one country? It was impossible. So it was more like a glancing flash. I got with some great musicians, but in one region. Or maybe two regions. I couldn’t go do the whole country. Some parts of the countries were at war and I wasn’t going to walk into a firefight just to play some music. Get knocked off. Just no point in that. But I got a lot of great experiences. Got into some pretty deep music considering how little time I had.
AD: African music was the most challenging for you?
BF: It was just the most recent. It’s all challenging. Trying to play Indian music the way they play it is one of the hardest things. Trying to play classical music and get it right is incredibly hard. Trying to play different kinds of jazz and follow the rules of each kind of jazz is really hard. The one that’s the easiest for me is actually bluegrass. Which is my fundamental, which is my base. That’s where I started, so I understand intuitively what to do. I may not always choose to play in the traditional fashion, but I do know how. And I love it. So that’s the most home for me.
But now I’m playing with the Flecktones a lot and that feels like home, too. We have hundreds of songs we’ve played and can call back up and we have a way that we play together that’s our own.
AD: You spend a lot of time playing your banjo in the jazz-fusion format. Do you ever find it difficult to go back to the traditional bluegrass?
BF: I need to make sure that I’m practicing when I come back to bluegrass. With this band, the trio that’s playing today, we’ve been doing it enough that it’s really feeling good. But at first, my right hand doesn’t do what it used to do in terms of really being strong rhythmically like a bluegrass banjo player’s right hand would be. You drive from the banjo. You push all the timing and the rhythm. So I’ve felt like maybe I’ve given some of that up in order to be a more flexible musician in the Flecktones and other groups, given up that hard driving bluegrass sound. But if I’m at a festival and I start playing bluegrass on Friday, by midday Saturday I’m usually feeling pretty strong or just about as good as I was. When I’m playing all the time, like this is going to be our seventh show, I get a lot stronger at it. I feel really confident. My right hand does things that I’m happy about. It just starts to happen.
AD: Do you practice like all the time?
BF: I practice a lot when I’m working on something. And sometimes I tend to whenever I pick up the banjo, I want to practice something new. Which means I’m not practicing what I should be practicing, which is something I already started. So I always want to do something new. So I’m more likely to sit down and start playing and start to write a new song or come up with a new technique. I think I would be a much better player if I split my practice half into new techniques and new songs and half into working on the ones I came up with last week that I’ve already forgotten. I’m just really attracted to what I can dig out that’s new. That process is really fun for me. But I don’t always integrate it, my improvising and my writing. My writing is the thing I focus new energy in, so I do end up with new songs that are different from each other. But in terms of soloing and so forth and improvising, I think I would be a better improviser if I would work on improvising techniques rather than trying to write new tunes all the time. When I had to go to Africa, I was practicing constantly trying to learn the music before I got there so I wasn’t trying to learn it on the spot. Because it was hard. So at that point, I was practicing. If I have a project coming up, I work on it as hard as I can to be ready for it.
AD: I’ve seen you many, many times and every time I see you, the show is like one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
BF: Wow! Thank you.
AD: And I wanted to know, do you have a favorite show that you’ve put on? Do you have one show that you liked better than any other show you’ve performed? Your most memorable?
BF: No, I really don’t. There are certain shows that I really want to hear back because I love the guys I got to play with. And usually it’s something that I don’t always get to do. It’s more likely that I don’t get to hear it. But the Flecktones have had so many nights that were just so incredible that I can’t even count them. I don’t go back and spend a lot of time listening to that because I play that music all the time and when I’m done, I’m ready to go do something else. There’ve been a lot of great experiences. But I like to think that the next show will be the best one. That lightning will strike and it will be just great. You never know what’s going to happen.
AD: What do you want to accomplish now with your music?
BF: I just want to keep getting to do it. I feel like I’m doing just what I want to do, which is whatever I want to do. And I feel like in some ways I might be making a choice for a smaller audience lately, because I’m doing some things that are more esoteric, more just what I want to do. And I feel sort of justified, like I’ve done so many shows for so many people and so many different things that some part of me wants to do what I want to do and hope that the audience will come along with me. Generally they do, but I’m realizing more and more that what I like is pretty esoteric, what I like to play, the kind of music I like to get involved with. It’s not popular and I know not to have expectations of a certain sized audience. Maybe the Flecktones audience of recent days is the biggest it will ever be and more likely will get smaller, especially if I start pursuing things that are even more unusual. But I’m comfortable with that. I just want to play music that I love and as long as I can make a living doing it, I’ll make that choice.