TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Our guest today is banjo player Bela Fleck. He spoke with our producer Sam Briger. Here’s Sam.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: It’s not easy to find out just how many Grammy awards Bela Fleck has won. Wikipedia says 14. Some articles say 16. His own website puts the count at 15. At some point, it doesn’t really matter. And whatever number, Bela Fleck is by far the most famous and celebrated banjo player on the planet. He has a new album of instrumentals, his first bluegrass album in 20 years. It’s called “My Bluegrass Heart,” and it’s dedicated to two of his musical heroes and collaborators that died in the last year, pianist Chick Corea and singer and guitarist Tony Rice.
Bela Fleck has recorded over 50 of his own albums over the years with all sorts of groups including his mainstay band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, New Grass Revival and with his wife Abigail Washburn who’s also an amazing banjo player. I spoke with Bela Fleck at the end of last month from his home studio, and he was gracious enough to bring along his banjo. Before we get to the conversation, let’s hear the lead track from “My Bluegrass Heart.” This is “Vertigo.”
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK’S “VERTIGO”)
BRIGER: That’s “Vertigo” from Bela Fleck’s new album “My Bluegrass Heart.” Bela Fleck, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BELA FLECK: Oh, it’s so nice to be here. Thanks for having me.
BRIGER: Do you remember the first time that you were struck by the sound of a banjo?
FLECK: Yeah. The first banjo experience for me was “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And I was somewhere around 5 years old, maybe younger, and I was at my grandparents’ house in Queens. And they let us watch TV, and on comes “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And there’s the sound of Earl Scruggs’ banjo, which has turned a lot of us into banjo players – just that sound, you know? He had that power over an unactivated banjo player to switch the switch on. And once you had heard him play, you were like a zombie looking for a banjo and trying to figure out how to play it.
But yeah, that was the thing. And I didn’t know what it was. I’m a New York City kid. I had nothing to do with bluegrass or country music, and really, I wasn’t really interested in the rootsy, folksy side of it. It was just the sound of that dang banjo. I mean, holy cow. Earl Scruggs was just such a force, and it was – it’s earthy. It’s incredibly virtuosic all at the same time. I always think of him as, like, a high-tech primitive.
BRIGER: So Earl Scruggs and “Beverly Hillbillies” is your The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
FLECK: It was. I mean, the Beatles also had a big impact on me, too. And being a New Yorker – although I always felt like an outsider to bluegrass, like, to the real bluegrass which is kind of why I wanted to move to Kentucky and why I wanted to play with people like Tony Rice and Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, people who came from there. I wanted to be accepted, I think, you know, by some of those people as a Yankee banjo player. It’s not the easiest thing to pull off.
BRIGER: Yeah. The first time I sort of heard a banjo or at least realized that I was listening to a banjo was on one of Steve Martin’s comedy albums where he says it’s impossible to be sad while playing the banjo, and even sad songs sound happy. And he said that if Nixon had had a banjo, it would have saved him.
BRIGER: But I know people who otherwise have great taste in music but for some reason just can’t stand the banjo. And you must have reflected upon that over the years and why that is. Do you think it’s the actual sound of the instrument or some sort of cultural stigma?
FLECK: Well, I do agree with you. First of all, I think there are banjo people who just tend to like banjo or, when they hear it, it switches something on in them. Whether they learn to play it or not, it switches on something that – you know, dopamine or something. You like it, you know? And then there are people who are just – they just hate its guts. And like – I think some of them, like you’re suggesting, some of them, it’s because of all of the, you know, the “Deliverance” movie or “Hee Haw.” They think it’s stupid.
You know, they don’t know the true history of the instrument. They don’t really understand that it comes from Africa and that it was brought over by the slaves, that it played a role in the early days of jazz, that there were banjo orchestras in the late 1800s. It was the guitar before there was a guitar in our, you know, in our continent. So you know, part of it is ignorance, and some of it may just be innate. Just like that part of me that got switched on, something switches them off.
BRIGER: Have you felt like you’ve had to be the ambassador for the banjo at certain points in your life, where you had to sort of prove how great an instrument it was and how versatile it could be?
FLECK: Yeah, I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder that it’s a lot more than people allow it to be in their perception. And I guess I – you could say I’ve benefited from that because when I play something like a classical piece or I play with someone like Chick Corea where they don’t expect to hear a banjo or an orchestra, you know, concerto, for instance, they’re surprised. They don’t expect it to be good. They expect it to be bad. So you know, if – and so I don’t have to be that good to get them to change their perception.
BRIGER: (Laughter) You just have to be a little better than their perception?
FLECK: Yeah, I just don’t have to – I just can’t suck. But if I’m, you know, decent, you know – I mean, I don’t pretend to be, you know, the level of jazz musician that, you know, that we have in the world. But you know, I’m kind of a poker. I do the best I can, but people are surprised. You know, I think the best I do is at being myself. You know, there’s some kind of a composite that blends all the different things that I’ve liked. And that’s the most honest, and that’s – yeah, like I said, I think that’s what I’m the best. And bluegrass is at the heart of it even though I don’t come from it. I’m an outsider to that world.
BRIGER: So you’ve said you’ve dedicated this album to two of your musical friends that died in the last year, Chick Corea and Tony Rice. We’ll talk about Chick Corea in a little bit. But in the liner notes, you say that you didn’t record a bluegrass album for 20 years because of Tony Rice. And for people who don’t know who Tony Rice is, he was a guitarist and singer whose influence in bluegrass is kind of like Charlie Parker’s influence on jazz. Like, in bluegrass, there’s a before Tony Rice period and an after Tony Rice. But he hadn’t been singing for a long time. He had vocal dysphonia, and he hadn’t been playing because of arthritis. So why was Tony Rice keeping you from recording a bluegrass album?
FLECK: One of the amazing things about Tony Rice was his rhythm playing, especially for banjo players. Like, if Tony Rice was playing guitar, you could play about 20 maybe 30% better than you ever could in – the rest of your life. And so I was addicted to that. And now, once you put Tony Rice with Sam Bush, all of a sudden, you had the rhythm section from God.
BRIGER: Well, let’s hear a session where you did get to play with Tony Rice. This is from Tony Rice’ 1984 album “Cold On the Shoulder,” and this is the leading track from that. It’s a song by Gordon Lightfoot. Let’s hear a little bit of you. And we can hear Bela Fleck. And Sam Bush is playing on this, too. Is that right, Bela?
FLECK: That’s right.
BRIGER: OK, let’s hear a little bit of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “COLD ON THE SHOULDER”)
TONY RICE: (Singing) All you need is time. All you need is time, time, time to make it bend. Give it a try. Don’t be rude. Put it to the test, and I’ll give it right back to you. It’s cold on the shoulder, and you know that we get a little older every day. Kick it around. Take it to town. Try to define what you feel inside. You better be strong. Your love belongs to us. It’s cold on the shoulder, and you know that we get a little older every day. All we need is trust. All I need is…
BRIGER: That’s the song “Cold On The Shoulder” from Tony Rice’s album from 1984 with the same name. And on banjo in that album is my guest, Bela Fleck.
Bela, let’s talk a little bit about your early years. You grew up in New York City. Can you tell us a little bit about your family and your neighborhood?
FLECK: Sure. I grew up on 100th Street and West End Avenue. It was a 3 1/2-room apartment. I think it cost $120 a month. My mother was a schoolteacher – elementary school, kindergarten. And yeah, that was it. My grandparents lived – Jewish, lived in Queens. My grandfather had a car wash business.
BRIGER: A lot of people assume that you have Hungarian roots because of your first name, but your name is Bela because your father named you after the composer Bela Bartok. Was your father a musician?
FLECK: Yes, my father – well, I would say he was a wannabe – he wanted to be an opera singer, and I think he studied in Europe. But it didn’t work out for him, and he ended up moving into – being a scholar and – dead languages – Norse, things like that – college professor.
BRIGER: But you didn’t know him growing up, right?
FLECK: That’s right. I didn’t know my father. Till I was in my 40s or so, I never even met him. And he and my mother split up when I was somewhere between 1 and 2. And I have an older brother, as well, so – he’s a year older than me. And – but anyway, my father named both of us after composers. And I finally did get some of that classical influence from my stepfather. He was a wonderful fellow named Joe Paladino. He played the cello, and so very often I would hear classical string quartet music on Sundays at our house, you know, in our apartment. So – yeah, but that’s the story.
BRIGER: Was Bela a tough name to have as a kid?
FLECK: Bela got better. I mean, it wasn’t…
FLECK: It wasn’t awesome in the beginning. But as it went on – as life went on, I sort of liked having a name that was different from other people. And most people didn’t know how to – I mean, they could say it if you told them how to say it, but they didn’t – if you – if they read it, they would call me Bella. A lot of people called me Bella. I didn’t really like that. But Bela was pretty cool.
BRIGER: So I think your grandfather bought you your first banjo. How old were you?
FLECK: I was 15. I had been playing some guitar – kind of hack guitar. I liked it, but I wasn’t fired up, as they say. And – but he knew I liked the guitar. And so I went up to Peekskill, N.Y., where he lived in those years, about an hour north of the city on a train. And when I got up there – this was the weekend before I started high school – he had this banjo. He had gotten it at a garage sale – just a cheap beater banjo. And he said, here, I know you like the guitar. Maybe you’ll like this. And he handed it to me, and I hadn’t really been that vocal or public about the fact that I was in love with the banjo because, for one thing, I didn’t think anybody could actually play it. It had to be impossible from what I could hear.
So all of a sudden, he hands me what I’ve been wanting my whole life, and puts it in my hand – hey, maybe you’d like this. And I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it, and I just kept trying to play it, and I couldn’t get it in tune. But on that Sunday, we took the train back to the city, and I met a fellow on the train who said, is that a five-string? I said, yeah. He said, you know how to tune it? And I said, no. And he tuned it up for me and gave me, like, a first banjo lesson. And the next day, I started high school at Music and Art High School, which is, you know, the “Fame” school.
BRIGER: It sounds like you had a series of different teachers over the years. And I’m just wondering, like, when you got really into it, did you forego all things? Like, did your schoolwork suffer as a kid?
FLECK: Yeah. Well, my point about the guitar is, you know, sometimes you got a kid and they’re, like, interested in something. And then you’ve – sometimes you’ve got a kid who’s fired up about something. And the guitar didn’t fire me up. But when I got the banjo, I got fired up. I would not put it down. And I just – yeah, it was the most important thing in my life. And maybe I’d been looking for something, you know, to fill in some lacks or some, you know, self-doubt or abandonment issues. Who knows? But whatever it was, I poured everything into that instrument.
And, you know, in just a few years – just two or three years – I was studying with the great Tony Trischka, who was, you know, one of the great banjo players of all time. Fortunately for me, he lived in the New York area. And people would say – we would be at a party, and we’d be playing together. And people would say, when I close my eyes, I couldn’t tell which one was Tony, you know? And at the time, I thought that was an incredible compliment, and it was in terms of the speed that I, you know, got good on the banjo. But at a certain point, I realized that there already was a Tony Trischka, and it wasn’t me. So I had to find my own way.
And it was around that time that I heard Chick Corea and Return To Forever play at the Beacon Theatre, just a couple of blocks from where we now lived in the ’70s, and had my mind blown. And that’s when I went back home after that concert and started trying to map out the fingerboard and trying to figure out how I could play the notes that Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola were playing on their instruments, which I – it dawned on me they were all on my banjo somewhere. I just had to find them.
BRIGER: Our guest is Bela Fleck. We’ll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK’S “SLIPPERY EEL FT. BILLY STRONGS AND CHRIS THILE”)
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you’re just joining us, our guest is Bela Fleck, who has a new album, his first bluegrass album in over 20 years. It’s called “My Bluegrass Heart.”
You dedicated your new album, as we said, to two people, Tony Rice and Chick Corea, who both died last year and who were big musical presences in your life. Let’s talk a little bit about Chick Corea. You planted your Chick Corea fan flag pretty early on in your career. On your first album from 1979, you covered his famous tune “Spain.” And then eventually, you had a duo with him. You recorded some albums. You had – you toured. How did that collaboration come about?
FLECK: First of all, I have to say, I heard “Spain” in jazz appreciation class in high school. And it blew me away the same way Earl Scruggs blew me away, the way it just imprinted itself on my consciousness. And I was like, wow, I want that. I don’t know what that is, but I want that. And it was his keyboard solo on the tune “Spain”. It just blew me away. As the years went by, I would run into him now and then. I remember when I made the “Drive” album, my first bluegrass album, I managed to claw my way backstage when he played in Nashville and hand it to him. I also remember writing him a letter way back – way, way, way back – maybe after I’ve been playing a few years. And he actually wrote me back. Chick Corea would write fans back who wrote him letters (laughter) in the late ’70s – unbelievable that he would do that.
And then a little while later, Flecktones, we’re doing pretty good. We were playing at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Our tour bus pulled up in front of a hotel. And I ran in. And when I came back out and jumped back on the tour bus, Chick Corea was standing there. And I said, Chick, what are you doing on our bus? And he said, Bela, what are you doing on our bus? And our bus had pulled out, and his had pulled up. And we really didn’t know each other very well. But I got up the nerve to ask him if he would play on a track for me someday. And he said, yes, to my surprise. And he played on – actually, I think it was three tracks. And I was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival one year. And who walks up to me but Ted Kurland, who is Chick’s booking agent. And he says, oh, Chick is thinking about doing duos next year. And he – you’re on his shortlist. Would you be interested in doing anything with him? I was like, what? Are you kidding? Would anybody say no to this? Sign me up. I’m ready, you know? I’d love to do that. It was a dream come true.
And then after the pandemic started, I got a call from Chick. He said, hey, I’m bored. Let’s do some stuff. And so we started doing some pandemic recording back and forth. He would send me a tune, lay down a track. I would do some banjo on it. Or then I would do a track. And I’d send it to him. He’d send me an improvisation, I’d play over it. I’d send him an improv. So, you know, there’s a whole bunch of stuff in the can with us that hopefully will come out some day that is actually kind of a new angle on our duo. So nothing will ever take the place of having Chick Corea in my life. You know, it’s such a loss for me. No one will be that for me ever again. But, hey, not only did I get to play with the guy, he became a dear friend.
BRIGER: What was it like playing with Chick Corea? From the live album, it sounds like sometimes you would feel intimidated.
FLECK: Yeah. Yeah. It was intimidating because, you know, he was Chick Corea.
FLECK: And he would just do things off the top of his head that were just, you know, impossible. Some days I would go, you know, I’m going to practice a bunch of stuff for this song. And then when we get on stage, I’m going to do this stuff. And he’s going to go, oh, yeah. Well, that’s cool.
FLECK: But what would happen is I would do that stuff. And he’d go, oh, yeah? Well, if you can do that, well, I can do this. And it would be like getting a swarm of bees buzzing. And he would go into hyperdrive. And there was no way I could hang in there with him. So it was – you know, it was humbling until one day I started thinking, maybe my purpose of playing with Chick Corea was to provoke new things out of Chick Corea, not for me to play, you know? Now, he certainly provoked new things out of me on a momentary basis. Every moment, I was having to jump and do things I’d never done before to try to hang in there with him. But the things that he would do after I would demonstrate a banjo technique to him, he would do them in such a way that it was just unbelievable. And it was brand-new Chick Corea playing that, you know, maybe nobody else would have provoked from him. So I felt very proud to stimulate the sleeping giant.
BRIGER: Well, you guys sounded great together. Let’s hear some of that. This is a track from the album “The Enchantment.” I’m not sure if I’ll be able to pronounce the name of the song right. It’s Joban Dna Nopia, which is a fun title for word jumble fans out there. So let’s hear some of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND CHICK COREA’S “JOBAN DNA NOPIA”)
BRIGER: That’s my guest Bela Fleck and Chick Corea from their album “The Enchantment.” We need to take a short break here. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND CHICK COREA’S “JOBAN DNA NOPIA”)
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you’re just joining us, our guest is banjo player Bela Fleck. He has a new album, his first in 20 years in a bluegrass context. It’s called “My Bluegrass Heart.”
So as we said earlier, your father left your family before you even really knew him, and you had no contact with him. But you said you did meet him again in your 40s. Was it easy to track him down?
FLECK: I was on a duo tour with my teacher Tony Trischka, my banjo teacher, and we were passing through Syracuse, and he mentioned that he was, you know, he was kind of sad. His father had passed away that year in Syracuse. And he said, hey, what’s the deal with your father? And you know – and I started explaining it to him. And he said, well, where does he live? And I said he’s somewhere in the D.C. area. And he said, well, we’re going to D.C. And we were on our way to play there the next day. And he said, would you like to go try and find him? And Tony, he actually stimulated me to do it, you know? I don’t know if I would have had the nerve without him. But I said, yeah.
And we found an address, and we went to his place. He wasn’t there. We asked the neighbor. And he said, oh, yeah, he teaches over at the University of Maryland. So we drove to the university. We asked where he taught, found a class. I looked in the window of the class he was teaching. He was a professor, and there he was. I had never seen him before? And it was a crazy day. All the students lined up at the end of the class to hand in papers, and I got on the end of the line and walked up to him and said, hi, I’m Bela.
BRIGER: Wow. What was his reaction?
FLECK: Oh, well, this is a surprise. He was very formal. And he said, well, in the case of an acrimonious split, I thought it was best to not be in touch, but you appear to be all grown up now (laughter). And he agreed that we would meet – you know, we would meet next time I came to town. He wanted a heads-up. And that’s what happened. So I got to know him a bit and spend some time with him, and he came to some shows.
BRIGER: Was he contrite at all about leaving? Or…
FLECK: There was one point where he said, you know, I don’t think I’m that good a person or something like that. And I said, look; you don’t – I don’t – you don’t have to feel that way, you know? It wasn’t like I was forgiving him. I just – I wasn’t really there for that. Just wanted to know – you know, it’s kind of like you want to know who Darth Vader is. He had too much power in my life because I didn’t know who he was. And that sort of feeling – those feelings were complicated, and I wanted to make him into a real person. And that’s why I wanted to go meet him. We didn’t have to suddenly become pals. And you know, we had a friendly enough – formally friendly type relationship from then on. But it wasn’t like he suddenly turned into my father.
BRIGER: You had a close relationship with your stepfather.
FLECK: Yeah. My stepfather, Joe Paladino, he was my real father in every real way, except biological. But at least the mystery was solved. I knew who he was. He knew who I was. And there was some contact. And that just took a lot of the sort of inflammation out of the situation for me.
BRIGER: When you looked through the window of that classroom, did that give you a shock? Were you like, that’s me in 20 years? Or like…
FLECK: I remember looking at him and seeing his ear and going, that’s my ear. You know, I see that ear. And then when I walked up on the line to see him, I looked at his hand. And it was like, that’s my thumb. I’m used to looking at my thumb because I play the banjo with my thumb. And there it was on another person. And it was more like – it looked more like my thumb than my older brother’s thumb, for instance, for some reason. Those were the things I felt right at the moment. It was a very charged moment, as you can imagine. But you know, it happened.
BRIGER: COVID really put the brakes on the life of a touring musician, but I was just wondering if COVID made you sort of re-evaluate your life and that sort of family-work balance and if you just reconsidered how you want to be a musician after COVID. Or…
FLECK: Yeah. I mean, I guess what I discovered during the COVID time is that if I don’t work on my music and I don’t have some time to be involved with the music, I get a little bit crazy. And it – you know, there’s a temptation to think that you could just put it away and just, you know, take that time and enjoy just being with your family and that it’s not a primary driver of who you are. But you know, I discovered it actually is and that if I don’t have a certain amount of time playing the banjo or working on the music, I just am not very happy.
So I was able to do that. You know, I was able to go downstairs. And downstairs in my studio, where I am right now, I had, you know, the whole – all the rough tracks from “My Bluegrass Heart” to work on, so I could go downstairs and play with – you know, hang out with Billy Strings and Chris Thile and Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and all of these cats, you know, on the speakers. Or I could go work on, you know, the Chick Corea duo stuff that we had going on – be hanging out with Chick and giving him a call. Hey, what do you think of this?
So I have all these things, you know, in the can that needed to be finished. And so I just spent a lot of time downstairs. And the main loss was that I just wasn’t playing very much. And that’s the hardest thing coming back is that, you know, a couple of years almost now, I guess really not that long, but a year and a half of not playing very much at my age, 63 now, it’s hard to come back from. So I’m really having to bust my butt to get my chops back up to where I want them to be for the tour.
BRIGER: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. As you said, you’re 63. And the way you play the banjo, it seems like it’s very demanding of just your physical ability. Like, your fingers are moving. You have to be very precise. As you get older, that gets harder. I was just wondering, projecting forward, like, what – how you imagined your relationship with the banjo is going to change. Like, if you – if at some point you can’t play those super fast technical songs anymore, are you going to continue to play things but concentrate on slower things or just work on melodic things? Like, have you thought about that much?
FLECK: Yeah, I have thought about it a lot, and I’m already starting to try to make the necessary adjustments. I remember for many, many years Bill Monroe, as he was getting, you know, quite a bit older, he insisted on singing the songs in the original keys that he did them when he was a young man. And sometimes it was pretty hard to listen to (laughter). I mean, I loved Bill Monroe, but I didn’t like to see him struggling to sing these songs. And so I’ve always thought about that and that if I was really smart, I would build music to play, as I got older, that suited my abilities. Maybe there would be some strengths that I would have from the years of playing, but they might not be about playing as fast as I could or as complicated as I could. And so I’m trying to move that way as I think about the banjo, and I’m moving to things that are more idiomatic. And I want them to be easy and natural, and I don’t want to be doing the impossible all the time, which used to be my thing. If I wasn’t doing something that seemed to be almost undoable, I wasn’t satisfying. That was sort of how I continued to progress.
And I remember talking to Bobby McFerrin once, and he said no new ground. That was his thing. If he wasn’t carving new ground in some way, he didn’t want to put the record out. And so he was inspiring that way, too. But yeah, no, I think there’s something to be said for the classical music world where, you know, there are pieces you play when you’re a young man. You might play, you know, Paganini. But when you’re, you know, in your 60s, 70s, 80s, you might choose to play sort of more mature material that you can bring your life experience to bear. And it’s not just about, you know, what young fingers can do.
BRIGER: Well, we need to take a quick break here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Bela Fleck. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK’S “TENTACLE DRAGON (FEAT. BILLY STRINGS)”)
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you’re just joining us, our guest is banjo player Bela Fleck, who has a new album out called “My Bluegrass Heart.” I wanted to talk a little bit about “Throw Down Your Heart,” which is a 2008 documentary directed by your brother Sascha Paladino. And it’s about your trip to four African countries – Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and Mali – where – I think the point was you wanted to bring the banjo back to Africa where it has its roots because the banjo, either as an idea or as an actual instrument, was carried over from – to America from enslaved Africans. What – how much do we really know about the roots of the instrument?
FLECK: I think we know pretty much. I mean, we know it came from West Africa and came over on the slave ships and – or the knowledge of how to build it came over on the slave ships and that it – when it got here to the Americas, it changed because of the materials that were here. And then it was changed by the people that were here from other cultures.
BRIGER: When you were in Tanzania, you met a famous blind singer and thumb piano player named Anania Ngoliga. And it seems like you two really hit it off. I was just wondering, what’s it like to encounter someone who you can’t really talk to ’cause you don’t share a language and you’re both – you’re from different cultures, and in this case, he can’t even see you. But when you play together, there’s – there seems to be a real bond.
FLECK: Yeah, Anania is one of those genius musicians. I mean, if he lived in the West, he would be a superstar – unbelievable singer, unbelievable instrumentalist, plays this big thumb piano that plays in a lot of keys. And the neat thing when we got together was how much overlap there really was ’cause he was one of those guys that was so easy to play with, one of those propulsive musicians that makes you excited and makes everything you do sound good.
But it wasn’t so alien to me as some of the things I heard in some parts of Africa, like the giant marimba that I heard over there. I didn’t know what was going on with that thing. And not only that, I couldn’t hear myself, it was so loud. But with Anania, we were in a small room. His instrument and mine were well-balanced, and I understood the language he was playing. And for some reason, I could get there pretty quick.
And it was a very trippy, some of the stuff. It was almost like everything was on a suspended chord or, like, a ninth chord. It’s called go-go music that he grew up in. And it was one of those life moments. Like, I mean, for me, he’s one of the special collaborations in my life as well.
BRIGER: Well, let’s hear a little bit of that collaboration that you had with Anania. And this is a song from your 2009 album “Throw Down Your Heart: The Complete Africa Sessions.” And I think you would pronounce this song “Dunia Haina Wema.”
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND ANANIA NGOLIGA’S “DUNIA HAINA WEMA”)
ANANIA NGOLIGA: (Singing in non-English language).
BRIGER: That’s my guest Bela Fleck and the thumb piano player and singer Anania Ngoliga. Bela, there have been some albums in the past where Western musicians have gone to other countries and gotten musicians to play on their albums. And there’s been some criticism about there being some exploitation there or that the – at least the albums were culturally insensitive. Did you have any concerns about that? And how did you address them?
FLECK: I did have some concerns about that. I’d seen that happen with people like Paul Simon. But you know, in most cases here, I was doing their music. I wasn’t appropriating it and calling it mine or anything like that – not saying Paul did that. But I wasn’t appropriating their music. I was playing along with them, doing their music. And we were able to get royalties to them for all of that. We didn’t claim any of that stuff as, you know, traditional arranged by me or anything like that on those songs. So we were able to not only pay people well for their time but get royalties to quite a lot of them.
BRIGER: Right, ’cause they have songwriting credits on the albums, right?
FLECK: Exactly. And those might be pieces that came up in their, you know, in their family or that – are, you know, traditional for that part of the world. But that was a way we could pay them and have there be a long tail to the record.
BRIGER: There was a funny point in the documentary where the great singer from Mali Oumou Sangare says, Bela is somebody who might have a hard time expressing himself with his mouth but who can express himself perfectly with his fingers. Is that a fair assessment?
FLECK: Well, part of it was that I didn’t speak French.
FLECK: But yeah, I think sometimes I’m a little shy to speak up, and I like to get the job done without that much talking, you know? But I’ve gotten better at it ’cause I needed to, you know? But I think there are things you can achieve by not speaking sometimes. You know, some of it is allowing people to find their own way and not overly direct people. I was always impressed by, you know, hearing stories of Miles Davis intentionally not directing Coltrane, you know? He might be frustrated with him once in a while for going on too long, but he wasn’t about to tell him how to play. And so sometimes I think I try that approach first, generally, saying as little as is necessary.
And – but I am more confident. Like, I’ll tell you this. I’m more confident saying what I think to a younger generation than I would be saying it to Chick Corea, you know, or somebody that’s older than me. So it’s interesting how age works into that as musicians or as people. You know, there are people that come before you, and you’re very deferential and looking to learn from them and kind of more interested in what they think. And there’s times when you just feel more confident that you have the answer and you should speak up.
BRIGER: So did you know that Chick Corea was ill? Like, the news of his death, at least for people who didn’t know him, was very shocking. People didn’t really know that he was ill.
FLECK: Yeah, the heads-up for me with Chick was that he was super responsive to me in terms of texts and calls. And we were in the process of finishing up this duo album, so I was sending him edits and mixes and things, and he was signing off on them. And we got through everything, and then I would write him, and it was radio silence, and I wasn’t hearing anything. And that was very unusual for him. And this was maybe around November sometime. And I remember on Christmas Day, I was starting to get worried about him, and I sent him some pictures of the kids, maybe a little film of the kids playing, which he would always tend to respond to very quickly. And he wrote me back with a very – you know, he would send a lot of piano emojis and smiles and stuff. He was an emoji guy. And it was a normal, you know, quick love the boys kind of thing.
And then the next thing, I got a call from his staff in January saying, we wanted to let you know it’s going to – it’s about to be announced. Chick died. And I was – I knew something was wrong. I had a sense something was wrong. In fact, after Christmas, I wrote Gayle and said, is everything OK? And she said Chick injured himself, and he’s working on healing up, so he’s a little out of pocket right now. And that’s all I knew. So I think what happened is he hurt himself, and when they went in to find out what was going on, they discovered the cancer.
BRIGER: Right. That’s – Christmas Day was also the day that the other person you dedicated the album to, Tony Rice, died, right?
FLECK: You know, I hadn’t even thought about that. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. But Chick was alive at that point. You know, it’s funny, I almost feel like he’s still here. I think about him all the time. I think, I’m going to send this to him. I want him to hear this thing I’m working on. Or, you know, he would love to hear this bluegrass. I wanted to play that stuff for him. I wanted to play it for Tony. You know, it was really – it’s disappointing. But in a weird way, I feel like he’s still here. And maybe it’s because he died out of sight. You know, both of them did. I don’t feel them to be gone the way they might have been if we’d had the closure of a funeral. You know, it wasn’t the closure that we’re used to having.
BRIGER: Well, Bela Fleck, I want to thank you so much for coming on today.
FLECK: Oh, hey, my pleasure. It was a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for – it’s a real honor to be on the show, by the way. I’m a fan.
GROSS: Bela Fleck spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Fleck’s new album is called “My Bluegrass Heart.” After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by the late actress Karen Black that she recorded in the ’70s. Her films include “Nashville,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “Easy Rider.” This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY’S “25 YEARS OF ROOTABAGAS”
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