With the passing of Earl Scruggs in 2012, Béla Fleck assumed the title of most popular living banjoist. His musical road has wound through bluegrass, jazz, world and classical music. The fifty-three-year-old was commissioned to write a concerto for banjo and orchestra by the Nashville Symphony. A recording of the work will be released in August on Deutsche Grammophon.
I didn’t realize that you had such a classical name [Béla Anton Leoš Fleck].
Yeah, I do [laughs], I got stuck with them. Three serious classical names.
Béla for Bartók. Is the Anton for Dvořák or Webern?
And then Leoš Janáček. Those were big shoes to fill. It sounds inevitable that you found your way —
t’s an unusual story, actually, because my parents split up when I was one year old and my father is the one who gave me all those names. This is one of those splits where the parents were completely out of contact. So I didn’t actually meet my father until I was in my forties.
Sounds like your dad knew he was pushing you in no uncertain terms toward music.
It was hard to fathom. It was one of those very strange [laughs] situations.
I thought, ‘Well, Béla just must have Hungarian roots.’
I have honorary Hungarian citizenship, simply because the Hungarian embassy was so disappointed that I wasn’t Hungarian, they made me one. Absolutely true.
So I don’t think a lot of people know that the banjo made its way to America via West African slaves. Can you take us through the history?
You just said it all. The slaves taken from West Africa included people that played instruments that were from the banjo-type tradition, or what we’d call the banjo now. I guess we’d call it some kind of lute or oud tradition. And Pete Seeger’s the guy who told me that the banjo, before Africa, probably came from Mesopotamia, down the Tigris-Euphrates River into Africa, at some point way, way back. And I don’t know how he knows, but I’m sure he does. I’m comfortable with him being an authority — or not. [Laughs.]
Pete Seeger, of course, was very much responsible forbringing folk music to the fore in this country.
He played a huge part, especially in the Northeast. I love this idea that I got from Pete Seeger that, as an American instrument, the banjo’s actually from Iraq.
That’s something to think about.
Sure. Let’s stick to Africa, but if we wanted to incite a few people, we could go that way. I’m not pushing for that. A lot of Gambians, West Africans came over, and in Gambia they say that slave traders took slaves that played the banjo because more people survived the trips if there was music on the boats. I don’t know. That could be folklore; it could be true. I have no idea. But they said that on the early trips a lot of people died, and the slave traders didn’t like drums, because drums could incite people and the Africans could communicate with each other through the drumming. But an instrument like the banjo, they said, was innocuous, lifted the spirit. I don’t know. I was told that in Gambia, but I’m not sure how they would know.
It’s heavy to consider that that was the banjo’s introduction to this country. I grew up in east Tennessee, so bluegrass is in my blood, and growing up it was always the received wisdom that these were tunes passed down from our Scotch-Irish tradition. But in fact it’s a revival movement of sorts, you might say ‘faux-traditional.’
Yes, bluegrass is. But if you think about traditional music in general, bluegrass is a small branch of a bigger tree. And it’s a more modern branch that was really built around the microphone, based on moving in and out of the microphone — that’s how it’s balanced. And it’s a small group. It’s not a community music where you have six or seven guitar players and five or six banjo players and eight or nine fiddle players all playing in a room together, like they do with Irish music. There’s one of each instrument, so it’s show music. It’s a showcasing of the tradition, and obviously it changed a lot when Earl Scruggs came into the mix.
Scruggs was a real game changer who brought the banjo into the light with a new and formidable picking technique.
Yeah, remember that they called him the Paganini of the banjo in The New York Times when he played Carnegie Hall with Flatt and Scruggs. [Lester Flatt, Scruggs’s duo partner, played guitar. —Ed.]
Explain this technique of ‘moving in and out of the microphone.’