Sonic Journey

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Fleck with Remi Jatta, who''s playing the akanting, a Gambian instrument with similarities to the banjo.

By Mike Levine

Never one to shy away from a musical challenge, banjoist Béla Fleck embarked on a trip to West Africa with the intent to collaborate and record with an array of different African musicians and highlight the banjo's roots on that continent. Some of these sessions were arranged in advance, but others were set up on the fly, and most of the music was field recorded. Fleck brought along an audio engineer and a video crew. The result of their expedition was an album, Throw Down Your Heart, Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (Rounder/Umgd, 2009), released this past spring, and a movie Throw Down Your Heart (Docudrama Films), which was in theatrical release earlier this year, and is due out November 3rd on DVD.

The songs for the project were recorded in locations ranging from a town square to the banks of the Nile river to a stone cooking hut. Fleck and company brought along two multitrack field recorders (one for backup), and a collection of microphones, as well as the video recording gear. I had a chance to talk to Fleck about the process and the challenges of preparing for and undertaking a project such as this, where the conditions would be so variable.

How many locations did you record in?
We were in four countries: Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, and The Gambia. We had portable recording rigs with us. We had two of them. We put together a kit so that we'd have redundancy. That was expecting something to go wrong, and it did, of course.

What did you record onto?
One machine was called a DEVA, an 8-channel recorder that's used in film for on-location film recording.

A hard disk recorder?
Yeah, and then you just keep pulling out the hard disks and popping in other ones. We also had an HHB Portadrive. It only had 6-track

The main multitrack was an 8-channel Zaxcom DEVA IV.

You carried a collection of mics?
Oh yeah. We'd gotten some stuff from Shure, they'd given us some mics to use. And then we also had brought some of my Neumanns, a couple of the U-89s, and several KM-184s. We actually had to think about mic stands. We weren't going to be able to think about mic stands in the middle of the field. Our engineer's name is Dave Sinko. He actually invented a mic stand that's a piece of metal that bends that you can wrap around things, and has the mic stand on the end. So you could wrap it around a chair leg, or you could stick it in the ground, or you could hang it from a tree or bend it in any direction you wanted.

Once you were in Africa, how did you get around?
We flew to each country and then drove around.

When you did these recordings, were you generally in some sort of town hall kind of place? No we did a lot of them outdoors. And it's amazing what we got. A number of the tracks that are on the record were recorded outdoors. Some of them you can tell, and it sounds cool because it's kind of mangy sounding, but the others you can't tell.

What''s an example of one you recorded outdoors?
There's "Jesus Is the Only Answer" with all the thumb pianos, and this one called “Angelina,” and one with the Zawose family, just called “Zawose” … Then other things like the first track on the album [“Tulinesangala”] was recorded in a really small cooking hut, like 6 or 8 feet across, but round. A stone hut with about 8 ladies singing, and some of them had babies strapped to their backs. You can''t hear the babies, they were very well behaved.

Fleck recording the song "Tulinesangala" with Ugandan women singers in a stone cooking hut. Notice the boom mic for the video camera overhead.

So you were recording outdoors, you had to deal with wind noise?
Yeah, in some cases, like that song “Angelina,” you couldn''t get really get rid of all of it. There''s a song, the last song on the CD, “Dunia Haina Wema." On that one you can hear the wind [CLICK TO HEAR AN EXCERPT]. It''s funny, in the studio, you''re always desperately trying to get rid of any noises, but when you get outside those noises become ambience and color and they create a time and place for the listener. I''m a real picky recorder, and I work really hard to make my albums really kind of perfect sounding. So this was a whole different experience. And I think these are perfect, too, but not in the same way.

How did you work out to do all this stuff? Was stuff prepared in advance or did you just set things up when you got there?
We did as much as we could ahead of time, and we left a few holes in the schedule, and pretty much as soon as we got there, we started looking for things we hadn''t already located. There''s also a tune on the record called “Wairenziante." That one''s recorded in a town square, that''s a huge marimba that''s about 15 feet long, it takes about 8 people to play it. That''s a pretty amazing live recording. We were sticking mics everywhere, and the whole town was singing and playing.

Did you have superduper windscreens on everything?
We put them on things. I don''t think there was wind problem in the center of town. We had more problems doing that “Angelina” cut and that “Jesus” cut, because that was by the banks of the Nile River and there was a pretty steady wind coming and going.

Any other technical problems?
Well, we had problems like frying stuff, and having to try and get a new motherboard sent for the DEVA.

Because of the power differences?
I think it was a mistake. Plugging the wrong thing into the wrong thing. Maybe it was when we were charging things up. We were camped out for portions of it, and then we had different power everywhere. At the end of each day, they were long days, Dave Sinko would set his alarm for every three hours and change batteries in the cameras and all the recording equipment. We could record for eight or ten hours straight.

So the two multitracks were both battery operated?
Exactly. That was the whole idea. We had to be able to go out into the countryside and record. The idea for me was that I''ve heard a lot of field recordings, some of them are great and some of them are terrible, but a lot of times you just can''t hear what you want to hear. So I didn''t want to come back from Africa with a two-track recording where the vocalist is standing in the back. I wanted to multitrack it, and it paid off. I picked the right guy to come. Actually there were two engineers, because we had an engineer recording audio for the DVD, for the film, Wellington Bowler. And they had different jobs, but they worked together very well.

The documentary of Fleck's trip showed in theaters over the summer was released on DVD on November 3rd.

So Bowler was recording stereo for the DVD?
He was doing whatever he had to do. He had a little mixer attached to his belt, and he had the boom overhead, and he was catching all the interactions between us, and he was sending all that stuff to Dave as well. They worked very well as a team, and it all ended up on the multitrack. And then he had these DATs of everything, as well, they were backups for us. They were great, what they did together was really good.

Many of the tracks were recorded outdoors, including the song that featured the Zawose family (shown here with Fleck).

I assumed you dumped everything you recorded in the field into your Pro Tools system and mixed it on that.

When you were in that mixing stage, did you try to keep it authentic by not adding reverb or other ambience?
I tried to use the ambience of whatever was going on. I did most of the mixing. In some cases I put just a very slight digital ambience to have something so that it wasn''t dead dry.

I noticed that sometimes your banjo had what sounded like some reverb on it.
Yes it did, it was because we were in a studio environment, and everything had reverb. So when we were in a studio, I felt like the rules were different, we were basically making a record. And that was mostly in Mali, we were recording with Oumou Sangare or Afel Bocoum and all the instruments were miked with multiple microphones, and everything is high-end audio, I figured that was a regular record.

You said that on the field-recorded stuff you didn''t add any reverb, what about compression? Did you feel like you shouldn''t do that either?
I only did a little on the 2-mix, like the [Waves] L1, just a couple of dB to bring up the level. No, we didn''t do much. In fact, I originally thought I would run it on to tape because a lot of time I mix onto ½-inch. And I''ve done that on a lot of records recently. But for some reason it didn''t add anything, in fact it took something away that I liked about the honesty of the digital. There''s always so much color and interesting stuff going on that I didn't need to color it. It''s strange. I try to experiment on most recordings to see. You always expect the tape to add warmth and life, but this stuff was already just fine, it didn''t help.

There''s one song where a guy is kind of scat singing with what sounds like a kalimba [CLICK TO HEAR AN EXCERPT] , what was that?
That is a kalimba. It''s kind of the size of a dictionary turned sideways, a big book. It''s not one of the tiny ones. He''s got more notes on there. That was done outdoors close by the Indian Ocean.

That was wild, is there a whole tradition where they do improvised music like that?
I think he is an aberration. I think he''s one of the most incredible musicians I''ve ever heard, Anania. We really hit it off musically. He came over. We just had a tour, that finished up four weeks ago where I brought over four of the artists and we toured around the states in a bus. He''s also blind. It''s just one guy playing and singing.

There was a crazy-sounding instrument on the song "Pakugyenda Balebauo." [CLICK TO HEAR AN EXCERPT] What was that?
It''s like a harp basically, with some kind of something about the way the strings are attached to the harp that makes them rattle, gives it that buzzy sound. It''s like he sits on the ground, the harp maybe 5 or 6 feet long. When I say a harp, it''s basically like a bent piece of wood with strings running across it. And then also you''ll hear a cymbal. A little rhythmic cymbal attached to his toe. And he''s tapping with his toe on the ground while he''s playing an singing.

Overall, what was the most difficult moment you had technically doing this project?
Technically was when the DEVA went down and we had to start recording with only six tracks on the other machine, that was exciting. And also, that machine, we couldn''t use the higher end mics. When the motherboard went down we could only use the Shure 57s and mics like that.

So the phantom power must have gone out.
Yeah, that''s part of what happened when the motherboard when out or whatever. So we ended up recording some of that stuff all on 57s, and it really sounds fine.

Fleck posing with Ugandan children. His trip took him to four countries, The Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Mali; and his aim was to trace the banjo's African roots.

Do you remember any of the songs that you did that way?
It was the stuff in front of the Nile. It was the “Jesus Is the Only Answer” song and “Angelina."

Those 57s always come through in the clutch.
Yeah, they come through.

Tell us about another notable moment from the project?
There''s this one other song that I recorded in Nashville with these musicians who were from Africa, who were over from Madagascar. And we had this track, this 22-minute track that we did, it was just a great jam, basically, with me and these guys. This was before I went and I brought it with me, and everywhere I went I would get people to sing on this track because it was a one-chord jam for 20-something minutes. And it ended up on the record, and I kept on adding people, even after I got back from Africa, I would run into African musicians and get them on this thing. It''s the one that''s called “D'Gary Jam." [CLICK TO HEAR AN EXCERPT] So what I had to do was, before I left, I pitched changed the whole thing off a half step, so I had it in two separate keys, because I figured I''d be running into all kinds of instruments that would and wouldn''t be in tune. So I took this track, and I always recorded this directly onto my portable computer, my Macintosh.

So you were carrying a laptop.
I had a laptop, which I was just using for my personal use. I had a little [Digidesign] Mbox, and plugged everybody in. And they would play along, and some of the really got into it and some of them couldn''t figure out what to do. But by the end I had people playing flutes, filddles, percussion, vocalists; 30 or 40 different overdubs on this track. And when I got home I pitch changed everything to the right pitch and brought everything in… So that song was the only actual sort of editing creation, you know, where you take what everybody did and you move it around until suddenly peoples'' parts [work together]—now they''re singing in harmony. Or maybe make loops out of the fiddle part and let it loop for awhile before letting it go back to what it was doing originally. So that track is on there, but it''s only about 6 minutes of it.

So you started with it in 2 keys?
Right. Well originally we just recorded it. Because I was going to Africa with it and I didn''t know what kind of keys people would be playing in, I figured if I had it in two different half-steps, one of them would work for most people that could get close. So that''s what I did, and when I got back I took all of this raw material and made it into this studio event. Listen to it again, and you''ll hear that this one track is not like the others. It''s not a field recording, it''s obviously a studio created thing. But when you know where everything comes from, it''s pretty amazing. It''s got lots and lots and lots of different textures and people just adding cool rhythms and instruments and great vocalists. There''s harmony singing, but none of it was done together. It''s all stuff that I sort of manhandled into sections that work. There are actually people singing from all different countries. What''s cool is that when I played it for people, for the African musicians when they came over to tour, there were like, “Wow, how come we never thought of this.” [That is] getting people from all the different countries singing in their own languages, and creating a whole track. It''s very international, because we keep forgetting that Africa is not a nation it''s a continent; many, many nations.

Going to four different countries, you must have encountered a lot of different musical genres and traditions. How were you able to blend it with the music you do to make it work together. Or were you kind of playing along on their music, trying to adapt?
In most cases, I figured that was my job. I wasn''t asking them to learn to play my music. And I also wanted the challenge of playing their music, and I''d picked out people whose music I loved in the first place, in most cases. And then there were of course some experiments. But even with the experiments, I''d get them to play a few songs and the one I liked the best would be the one we''d do.

You must have run into a ton of different musical influences.
I did. This is the hardest part to explain, but I''m kind of good at morphing in with people and just sort of following and finding my place. That''s one of the things I''ve realized over the years, I''m actually kind of good at. I don''t exactly know why. I could tell you the sorts of things that I do: you listen real carefully and you try to find rhythms, and you don''t try to play what they''re playing exactly, but you''re inspired by it. And you can either improvise as a jazz musician almost, but based on what you''re hearing, and responding to what you''re hearing rhythmically and harmonically. Or, you can actually learn the music and write it down and play it along with them that way almost like a classical musician would. I did it both ways. And I did both of those things. In different situations I would assess it very quickly: can I learn this melody in the amount of time I have? Because I wanted, as much as possible, to play the stuff. But if I realized this wasn''t going to happen, we''re going to spend the whole day recording and we''re not going to get anything because I don''t know it, I would pull the plug and just start improvising. A lot of the times, the stuff that I played off the top of my head worked out really, really well. I don''t know why I seem to be really good at that, it''s sort of a hard thing to explain. Except that I''ve been doing it for a long time. Back in the mid ‘80s, when I first went overseas on trips for the State Department, I would always play with local musicians. It would always turn into a really happy experience. I would just sort of jam along, and find things, and learn tunes whenever I could. It made people real happy and it was inspiring to me to do that. And I''ve always tried to do that whenever I could. And this time, 20 years later, I think I was a little bit better at it.

Mike Levine is the editor of EM.

Audio excerpts © 2009, Rounder/Umgd Records

Photos courtesy of Béla Fleck.