Vol. 1, Issue #26 Jan. 19th - Feb. 1st, 2007

A Conversation with Bela Fleck
By: Graham Lee Brewer

Bela Fleck is thought of by many as the world’s premiere banjo player. The New York native has not only mastered the instrument, he’s helped shape an entire genre, produced albums in several categories, changed the way people look at both Bluegrass and Jazz music, and is the only musician to be nominated for Grammy’s in jazz, bluegrass, pop, country, spoken word, Christian, composition, and world music. Now, the man who seems to spend his entire life with his hands in several musical projects at once will be stopping by Rose State College on February 2 with his world renowned band, The Flecktones.

--I saw the movie Deliverance last night and I remembered that you once mentioned how that movie motivated you to start playing. Can you explain that?

Hearing the banjo playing was the main thing and being intrigued by the music. It was more that than the movie itself. The sound of the banjo. I had heard the banjo already, when I was six or seven, on the Beverly Hillbillies, but I kind of forgot about it. But then when I saw that movie, it was so incredible. There was so much pathos and stuff in that scene, where the kid’s playing the banjo.

--It must have been hard growing up in Harlem as a young, white banjo player.

I grew up on the upper west side, about three block from Harlem. But I did go to highschool in Harlem. I got a little bit of jive from people. At that time, the big thing was the show Hee Haw. So when people saw a banjo player go by they would start flapping their arms. I didn’t like that. I found that to be pretty insulting. One of the nice things I’ve noticed is that in the recent years people don’t do that anymore. When young people see a banjo they don’t start flapping their arms. They say, ‘what is that? What part of our heritage is that from?’ I think that’s a wonderful development.

--Isn’t the banjo originally an African instrument?

It is. That’s the funny thing about it. Everyone connected it with either The Hillbillies, or that scene in Deliverance. Which is a shame because it has such a beautiful heritage. I mean, the fact that we had slaves wasn’t beautiful, but the fact that it survived and continued to come up into the city blocks, up through the concrete and survive, despite everything that’s around it. I think that a lot of the things about the banjo are like that. The music and the sound of the banjo that has somehow come up from African roots and all of the changes and all of the twists and turns of life.

--Growing up in New York was it hard to find banjo music, at least in the live sense?

Once I got into it I found that it was quite common music in the city. Partly because the folk boom was a fairly recent thing. There was still coffee houses and folk concerts, and there was bluegrass community and places that would have a bluegrass show every week or two. There was also a country place that would have bluegrass night and big bluegrass acts would come through. There were concerts on the pier on South Street that I would go to and an old-fashioned instrument dealer in Staton Island and some good teachers around. One of the guys who ended up being one of my biggest heroes, Tony Trischka, lived in the Bronx at that time. It was actually one of the coolest places that you could learn the banjo because there were traditionalist guys, and modernists, and lots of records out. It was a good scene, and it’s probably worse now than it was back then.

--I never would have imagined it was like that.

Yeah, it was surprising. Short of growing up in North Carolina in a community that played that kind of music I couldn’t have found a much better place to learn. And also I learned a much bigger world view. Which is a lot of the reason why I ended up playing the way I play, because I learned it there and was hearing everything else, too.

--Seeing as how the banjo isn’t a staple of the music industry these days, does the audience’s perception of your music weigh in as a factor when you write?

No, I just write what I like. I go with things that move me. I don’t think, ‘they’re really going to love this,’ I think, ‘how can I turn this into something that we’ll all really like?’ I think I just happen to like stuff that a lot of people can relate to. Although I’m accused of it I don’t think that my tastes are that esoteric.

--New-grass is a term that describes the second generation of bluegrass players like Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe, and is often associated with you. Do you feel like a part of that movement or do you see yourself as moving past that and making something even more progressive?

Both. I’m definitely part of that movement and proud to be part of it. It’s sort of a click of musicians that I grew up in, like Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Stewart Duncan, even Edgar Meyer. That’s a place I’m very proud to be. But I also exist outside of that world. I get to do things that don’t really involve the bluegrass scene at all that are more progressive like The Flecktones and playing with classical and jazz musicians. I was in Africa a couple years ago making a movie and an album that will be out next year. I just recently produced a great opera singer, which I’m still working on. I thrive on diversity and putting myself in places that are challenging and fun.

--What movie are you working on?

It’s a documentary of my trip to Africa. I went to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali and filmed sessions with some great acoustic musicians in those territories. Just jamming with them and learning their music. There’s going to be an album and documentary that has been my secret passion for the last two years.

--That sounds like it was a great experience.

It’s unbelievable. I don’t talk too much about it. I just let people know that it exists because when it’s ready to happen I’m going to really want to talk about it. I also just finished recording a duet album with Chick Corea, a jazz pianist, and that was something that was a life long goal. It was really exciting. We’ll be touring a lot next year. Aside from The Flecktones my plate is just full of things that I wished I could do someday and are all happening right now. I’m very fortunate. And The Flecktones continue to be a huge part of it and a home base for me, where I can be myself with a group of musicians who are equally eclectic and interested in pushing it.

--Your drummer, Futureman, invented his own instrument, the Drumitar, which allows him to play the drums with a guitar shaped instrument. I’ve read that he’s also a scientist of sorts. All in all I find him to be a very interesting character. Would you tell me a bit about him and what it’s like to play with him?

He is one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met. He’s got incredible energy and focus and no fear of the unusual. Where my tastes are actually pretty inside, he’s wide open to anything. Semi-tone music, music made from mathematical equations, he’s just a dynamo of creative energy. I love being in a band with somebody like that. Someone who embraces all these different musical worlds. My tastes are more inside. I like music that’s pretty consonant, a little bit dissonant, but pretty consonant. and I like some of the ultra classical music and jazz, but jazz that has lots of changes.

--Was he part of the reason you guys did a Bach cover for your newest album?

Actually Edgar Meyer and I had been dreaming that up for awhile. Edgar and I went looking through a bunch of stuff.We found one that we thought might be fun to try and when we did it sounded good. So, we decided to put it one. Put there’s a lot more we could try someday.

--The Hidden Land has been nominated for two Grammy’s this year (Best Contemporary Jazz Album and Best Pop Instrumental Performance). Earning a Grammy nod is nothing new for you, what’s it like gaining so much appreciation for your music by such a prestigious organization such as the Grammy’s?

It’s pretty cool because the Grammy’s is really musicians and people in the industry so it’s not like a popularity contest among listeners. It’s a popularity contest among the musicians. It’s still a popularity contest. People choose what they like and don’t always listen to the music that they vote for. But it means that the people that vote they saw our name and said, ‘I like those guys,’ and checked our name instead of somebody else’s, and that means that we’re well like in the music world. That doesn’t mean that our music is any better than anyone else’s, but it’s always nice to be liked. I like to got the Grammy’s just because I end up meeting a lot of musicians from a lot of different worlds and I find that to be one of the few places that you might run into classical musicians, jazz musicians, pop and hip-hop stars. You might run into the polka king or the mamba king. They’re all in a room together and I dig that.

--How much of a role does improv play in your song writing and performing?

Improv plays a big role in the music that I like to do, although more recently there’s been times where I’ve had to play music where every note was written out, like classical stuff, which is a whole different world. But I like to write music with a whole lot of space in it, like the music I did with Chick Corea where we would write these forms and then improvise in between them, which is what I do with The Flecktones. We don’t tend to improvise the form, we improvise within the form. It’s really nerving to improvise the form, in other words, make up the song as you go along. Or decide to go to a verse or chorus spontaneously. We don’t do that so much. We usually decide how the songs going to go and then see how long it takes to get to each part. So, we always know what’s coming, but how we get there is left up to spontaneity.

--I know you’re fond of recording at home. Did you do that with this last album?

Yeah, we did. It’s much less stressful. You don’t have to worry about studio costs. In your house it’s much cheaper since I own all of the recording gear. It’s so cheap to have all of your own stuff and do it yourself. We set up our gear, work reasonable hours, and people leave and I can play it back and screw around with it while people go back to their lives.


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