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Béla Fleck: Banjo Beyond Speed

The best banjo players seem are amazing. The speed and dexterity with which they play – coupled with the fact that banjos generally are smaller instruments than guitars – makes what they do seem to do remarkable.

Béla Fleck is among the greatest banjo players ever. He is fast when he wants to be. But listen to the two tunes here, and something perhaps even more important becomes apparent: Fleck has a gift for melody that enables his music to have a more lasting impact.

I was particularly struck by “Big Country,” which is above. It reminds me of the most evocative of Irish music as well as Mark Knopfler movie soundtracks and “Ashokan Farewell,” the haunting piece by Jay Ungar that played such an important role in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.

Béla Fleck was born in New York City on July 10, 1958. He was named after three great classical composer: Béla Bartók, Anton Webern and Leoš Janáček. With that classy background, it’s funny that he decided upon the banjo after hearing Earl Scruggs play the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

He is the longtime leader of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and is known for using the banjo in a number of unaccustomed musical settings. He has been nominated for Grammy Awards in more different categories than any other musician.

Fleck is married to banjo player Abigail Washburn and produced her first solo album. She accompanies him below “The New South Africa,” which is from an album of duets.

Wikipedia entries on Fleck and Washburn and Fleck’s site were used to write this post. Image: Julianne Marcie

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