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The banjo man

CHITRA SWAMINATHAN
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Meet Bela Fleck, winner of 14 Grammy awards and the musician behind many global collaborative works

PRIZEWORTHY Bela Fleck at the Grammy awards
PRIZEWORTHY Bela Fleck at the Grammy awards

Just in case you are not familiar with the many facets of the banjo and its exponent Bela Fleck, his 14 Grammys and 30 Grammy nominations are enough to draw your attention to both. Fleck is a music traveller, who has been on a constant collaborative journey. He is a tenor technician, who shifts with ease between rapid-fire riffs and delicate, subtle instrumental workouts. He is a nifty athlete, who hops, jumps and swings between jazz, classical, rock and bluegrass. In 1988, he formed the quartet Flecktones that performed over 200 concerts every year. This American banjo star’s albums such as ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’, ‘Perpetual Motion’, ‘Music for Two’ (with his favourite co-creator double bassist Edgar Meyer), ‘Across the Imaginary Divide’ and ‘Rocket Science’ have had both critics and music lovers go for the rewind button. But his Indian connect comes through in ‘Tabula Rasa’ that he recorded with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and more importantly, ‘The Melody of Rhythm’ that features tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer. Not just a mash-up of styles but a convincing amalgam of rhythm and melody, the album raised the bar for musical joint ventures.

In an email interview, Bela Fleck talks about his ever-expanding musical family and formula-free creations.

How did you take to the banjo since you began your musical journey playing the guitar?

I loved hearing the banjo when I was very young thanks to the great master Earl Scruggs. In the years before I was able to get a banjo, I played the guitar. My grandfather finally surprised me with one when I was 15, and suddenly I was set on fire!

How do you perceive the banjo’s place in the collaborations you have been part of?

I think that the unique sound and technical set up of the banjo yields musical possibilities that would not occur with any other instrument. I try to find the things that are most natural, and soak up as much of my collaborator’s musical language as possible. The banjo can have a very rhythmic component, which comes in handy while collaborating with master percussionists such as Zakir Hussain. I feel like I am part percussionist.

Tell us about how you met Zakir Hussain and what do you think of cross-cultural collaborations?

Edgar Meyer and I have been long-time appreciators, actually fans of Zakir. We approached him when we finally had something worthwhile to share with him. This was a chance to co-write a triple concerto for tabla, bass and banjo. He was interested, and it led us into doing trio shows as well. We have done quite a few of these. I have no problem with the concept of cross-cultural collaboration, as long as it is done with integrity and high musicality. If it is not done with these elements, I find myself getting irritated with the concept!

Your feeling about performing in Chennai which is home to Carnatic music?

I feel extremely fortunate to be performing in Chennai, and in such amazing company. I will not be foolish enough to act like I know Carnatic music, and will attempt to show what I do know and how they might relate to each other. I think people in Chennai will appreciate Meyer’s amazing talent, and I am proud to perform with him. No one has ever played the contrabass like him.

CHITRA SWAMINATHAN

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