Review: Bela Fleck’s Throwdown Your Heart

Like their protagonist, the filmmakers play like virtuosos; developing the musical segments via layers of instruments and percussion folding on top of one another until Bela whittles his way in amidst the unique sounds, rhythms and time signatures of the locals. Before long, you realize you’re watching impromptu masterpieces misting up out of thin air. Witnessing these musical collaborations take shape in a movie setting serves only to enhance the experience as the mind-bending music from these unlikely pairings are rewarded with full-fledged cheers from the audience, complete with “woo-hoos” and arms-raised-to-the-rafters clapping throughout the seats. You’ll need to use you toes to count the number of times the goosebumps rise of the course of these 90 minutes.

Allegedly, it was an obsession with Malian songbird, Oumou Sangare, that initially drew Bela to Africa. A true character in every right, Sangare drives around Mali in an all-black Lexus SUV with no license plates and announces her legend at every corner as literally every Malawian knows, loves and reveres her. One listen to her voice all you’ll understand exactly why Bela found her so enchanting as Djorolen (listen below) seems to call out, “Bela, come to Africa to make the joyful music. Don’t forget bring your banjo.”


One of the true gems the film puts forth are the deep, lovable characters that the brothers encounter along the way. There is the Gambian Jatta family, consisting of a long heritage of ngoni players, among whom Bela entrusts the youngest with a banjo as he became entranced by its sound, continuing to pluck and learn the instrument throughout the film. Given that the actual footage for the film came from 2005, after the movie, Bela mentioned in his Q&A that the young boy does indeed still play.

In a movie filled with touching characters, one stands out from the rest: female thumb-pianist Ruth Akello. Within a culture where women do not play instruments, one of her male peers says of Akello, “Most women do not play the thumb piano. But she is a wizard.” Finally, there is the picking equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil, Malian guitar god, Djelimady Tounkara. Upon first meeting (and hearing) Tounkara, Bela looks as though he’d seen a ghost and humbly explains, “this is gonna take some work.” It appears if only for a moment, that the Talented Mr. Fleck has met his musical match. Ultimately, the two come together to compose a virtuoso call-response piece that illustrates their competitive camaraderie in the form of blazing runs before resolving into a collective rollick.

In terms of the explorations of the African musical culture, the discoveries of the various African instruments provide an eye-opening look at some truly amazing, and primitive, craftsmanship. The akonting, a gourd wrapped in animal skin with three twangy strings drew the most gasps as the film documents the natives crafting them from scratch with fresh animal hides; hence they rather grossly swarm with buzzards. The n’goni is probably the closest thing to an actual banjo, which are a handmade from hollowed wood, almost like a canoe, in Mali. The kora is a 21-string harp-lute that looks more like a spacecraft than something that makes music, but its players turn it into a carnival. Finally, one of the film’s most fun segments includes a gigantic marimba built into the ground outdoors stretching about 15 feet long and played by three of four people at a time.

If you pistol whipped me for some critical points, a couple minor things come to mind. The main one being that the overarching theme – that Bela sought to reintroduce the banjo to African culture while researching the original roots of the instrument – is a little loose. The storyline touches on this repeatedly, not necessarily missing the mark, but it felt a bit grandiose and forced in the context of the real central theme – the amazing music and collaboration of cultures. Furthermore, if the film would have ended with Djorolen (listen above), the soul-melting duet with Oumou Sangare, the place would have been wall-to-wall waterworks. The ending was still solid, but it felt like the perfect ending should have been with Sangare. Overall, any flaws were few and far between.

It’s tricky to put down into words a reaction like the one I had to Throw Down Your Heart without sounding like an exaggerating doofus, but it’s definitely fair to say that Throw Down Your Heart is inspiring. I walked straight home and bought the album and it’s been on repeat since Saturday. After seeing this movie, everything looks like an instrument, be it a stapler, a bottle or a body part and the travel bug is now wide awake. Ultimately, I think I might actually have a better perspective on things than I did a week ago, completely thanks to this documentary.


Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out where to buy a good thumb piano.

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10 Responses

  1. Excellent review, Ryan. Thank you. I’ve been waiting to check this out ever since I heard about the project.

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