Bela Fleck: Rehabilitating the banjo

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Abigail Washburn, Juno and Bela Fleck. Photo: Jim McGuire.

Heard any Bach on a banjo lately? If that conjures up a tinny twanging to drive you screaming from the room try a dose of Bela Fleck. Who else uses the much-maligned instrument to play Bach and Bartok, to duet with jazz maestro Chick Corea or to colour the desert-tinged tunes of Joseph Tawadros? Fleck has taken the banjo to places it never dreamed of going, and in the process has made countless converts.

While most 1960s kids watching The Beverly Hillbillies giggled at Irene Ryan’s performance as Granny, the young Bela (pronounced “Bayla”, and named after Bela Bartok) was besotted with theme song and the big, rich sound of Earl Scruggs’ banjo. Fleck was not sitting in back blocks of West Virginia, however, but in New York City, and so he set about using the banjo to explore all the styles he loved, from the Beatles to classical, bluegrass, jazz, Indian, middle-eastern and African music. Now 58, he is arguably both the instrument’s ultimate virtuoso and the world’s most wide-ranging musician, winning 16 Grammys and enjoying redressing the misconceptions of what a banjo can do.

“I made a classical album called Perpetual Motion,” he says on the telephone, “and a lot of people said they played it for friends who had no idea what instrument it was. They couldn’t figure it out, because it didn’t sound like a stereotypical banjo.”

Fleck was inclined to play “non-banjo” music from the outset. If he took his banjo to high school and played bluegrass it as treated as a joke. “But if I tried to play Stairway to Heaven or a Grateful Dead song,” he says, “they’d all of a sudden go quiet or get real excited, and go, ‘Wow, that’s really different.’ So I guess I was encouraged my school-mates in New York City, which is not a banjo-friendly town!”

When playing such diverse musical languages in so many different contexts Fleck is not just trying to fit in, but also be himself. “That’s actually the critical part,” he says, “because if you just try to blend in you’re not necessarily bringing out your personality. You want people to actually be moved by something that you do and feel your humanity through your music. That’s what art is. That’s what an artist is supposed to do, and that’s what I aspire to.”

The lilting, folky Americana music he makes with his wife, the singer and fellow banjo-player Abigail Washburn, is a world away from the electric banjo extravaganzas with his sizzling fusion band the Flecktones. “What I do in every situation is play what seems right to complete the picture of what the other person is doing,” he says. “With Abby it was just so obvious to me what I needed to do to make a complete sound between the two of us, and then we discovered we had a chemistry on stage that was really special.”

The collaboration has become the main focus of both careers since the arrival of a son, Juno, and a desire to keep the family intact. “In the States we travel around on a tour bus,” says Fleck, “and we bring a nanny, and little Juno thinks the tour bus is the most normal thing in the world.”

So what chance of Juno swelling the ranks of the world’s banjo players? “At the moment he’s a lot more interested in golfing,” laughs Fleck, “which is bizarre to both of us. Neither of us are golfers! But he sure is: a three-year-old little Tiger Woods!”

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn: City Recital Hall, August 15.