Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.
I'm Doug Johnson. This week we travel to Africa with
the banjo player Bela Fleck. We hear music from his latest album, "Throw Down
Your Heart," and discuss a movie about his trip to Africa.
first, we go to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., to see
an exhibit about an ocean goddess.
She is part woman and part fish. She carries snakes with
her and brings good luck in the form of money. She is sensual, beautiful, and
protective, yet sometimes dangerous. Her name is Mami Wata. Faith Lapidus tells
us about her.
Wata is pidgin English for "Mother Water." Since the fifteenth century, the
water spirit Mami Wata has taken many forms and names. She appears in different
cultures throughout Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. She is a very
popular subject for artists.
Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., currently has
a show that honors Mami Wata's many faces. The exhibit shows how cultural
influences and spirituality change and grow throughout history.
One of the first works in this exhibit was made in the
nineteen fifties by the Ovimbundu people of Angola. This expressive wooden
sculpture is of a woman with a lower body like a fish. The woman raises her
left hand as though she wants to tell you something.
Nearby, a sculpture from the same period by an artist
in Nigeria shows a woman holding a snake in her hands. Another snake wraps
around her body. This sculpture was probably the center of a religious offering
is also a wooden headpiece worn in water spirit ceremonies by people in
Guinea-Bissau. It is shaped like a huge
shark fin. It is cut with forms of colorful sea creatures swimming with humans.
slaves who settled in the Caribbean and South America brought with them beliefs
linked to Mami Wata. These beliefs grew into other traditions. In Haiti, she is
known as . Her influence can be seen in a shiny flag by the Haitian
artist Roudy Azor. It shows three women sharing one fish tail body.
the Bahia area of Brazil, this water spirit takes the form of Yemanja. In February, people honor Yemanja, the Queen
of the Ocean, with offerings they place in small boats in the water. When the
small boats sink, it is believed she has received their presents. Brazilians
pray to her for love, support and protection.
in the Dominican Republic, Mami Wata takes the form of Santa Marta la
Dominadora or "The Dominator." She is known for her special powers in helping
people with relationships. Visitors to the exhibit can see a special religious
area set up to honor this saint.
last part of the exhibit shows Mami Wata's influence in modern art. The
African-American artist Alison Saar gives her a new look in a flat metal
sculpture hanging on the wall. In this version, Mami Wata is a woman with a
snake wrapped around her. She is wearing
nothing but red shoes with high heels.
Bela Fleck is widely considered one of the most
important banjo players in the world. He is famous for his many bluegrass and
jazz influenced recordings. His most recent album is called "Throw Down Your
Heart." It is his third recording in a series called
"Tales from the Acoustic Planet." Barbara Klein has more.
Fleck's goal with this album was to explore the African roots of the banjo. He
says many Americans mistakenly think the banjo came from rural areas of the
southern United States. So, in two
thousand five, Fleck went to Africa to learn from musicians there. His trip
resulted in an album and movie, also called "Throw Down Your Heart." In the
movie, you can see Bela Fleck playing with musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia
he wanted was to bring the banjo back to Africa. It would be possible for the
banjo to come back and play with its old folks."
movie shows how important music is within communities in Africa. Music is not
only for special events. It is part of
everyday life for men, women and children. Bela Fleck could not talk with many
of the musicians you see in the movie because they did not know each other's
language. But they were able to
communicate very clearly with music.
is playing with a group of women from a small village in Uganda.
Tanzania, Fleck plays with musicians including Anania Ngoliga. He is a master
of the thumb piano, which you can hear in this recording.
in Tanzania, Fleck visits a beach where centuries ago enslaved Africans were
led to ships that would carry them to other countries.
JOHN KITIME: "This town's called Bagamoyo, Bagamoyo
means 'throw down your heart.' Bwaga
means throw. Heart, moyo is heart. Because this is where slaves from the
mainland would come for transportation."
musician John Kitime explains that the slaves knew that they were not going to
see their homes again. So it was time to "throw down their hearts" before
leaving. The Africans on these ships
brought the instruments to America that would later evolve into the banjo.
traveling, Bela Fleck discovered many of the banjo's ancestors.
BELA FLECK: "West Africa is where you really see things
like banjos; East Africa, not so much. But in West Africa, you have the halum,
the ngoni, the akonting ... "
In the Gambia, Fleck met with the Jatta family of musicians. They play an instrument
called the akonting. The akonting has
three strings, while the banjo Bela Fleck plays here with the Jattas has five.
Bela Fleck plays with popular musicians in small villages. He also plays with some
of the biggest names in African music. Here he performs "Miriam" with the
Malian guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.
leave you with Bela Fleck performing with the famous Malian singer Oumou
Sangare. This beautiful song tells about a songbird crying out into the forest.
Mizz Sangare asks people to remember those who are poor, powerless and without
I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program today.
It was written and produced by Dana Demange. For transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our
programs, go to voaspecialenglish.com.
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