Film: Throw Down Your Heart

Bela Fleck takes bluegrass back to Africa in this fascinating documentary.

In the opening sequence of this elegant documentary, banjo whiz Béla Fleck stands in a Ugandan village, his first stop on a transcontinental quest to reintroduce his instrument to its African roots. He’s picking a rapid-fire bluegrass riff before a few dozen bemused villagers when a wispy teen starts shredding on a single-string proto-fiddle. Fleck struggles awkwardly to play along. Then the crowd steps in, clapping a rhythm for the beleaguered American virtuoso, and in seconds, the two musicians are head-bobbing in a full-on jam.

When director Sascha Paladino and the Flecktones front man (his older brother) launched their African tour in 2005, the plan was simply to roll camera while Fleck recorded alongside local musicians. But Throw Down Your Heart is more than just a Behind the Music for the resulting album: By documenting Fleck’s burgeoning friendships with his collaborators—a posse of throat-singing urban Maasai teens, a Ugandan thumb-pianist who wows with an instrument traditionally played by men—the film subtly probes issues like cultural preservation and changing gender roles. Fleck’s itinerary also illustrates the continent’s diversity, as seen in the contrast between the Ugandans’ thatched-roof huts and a Malian pop diva’s comparatively glitzy cell-phone-and-SUV lifestyle. Like all great music docs, Throw Down Your Heart explores social issues without ever taking the focus off the tunes.