Boogie-Shoe Anthropology

Once upon a time we students of humanity, a.k.a. anthros, imagined we could pin down others from an entirely objective viewpoint. We thought this was hard science and there were strict laws about presenting the specific beauties of a people. Laws and beauty: not exactly bedfellows, right? This approach was doomed.

The backlash was an awfully nice, but not exactly helpful “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophy. One angle was politely called relativism. In 1991 Robert Pirsig trashed such overreactions:

What many were trying to do, evidently, was get out of all these metaphysical quarrels by condemning all theory, by agreeing not even to talk about such theoretical reductionist things as what savages do in general. They restricted themselves to what their particular savage happened to do on Wednesday. That was scientifically safe all right— and scientifically useless. … If you can’t generalize from the data there’s nothing else you can do with it either. … A science without generalization is no science at all. Imagine someone telling Einstein, “you can’t say ‘E=mc2.’  It’s too general, too reductionist. We just want the facts of physics, not all this high-flown theory.” Cuckoo. … Data without generalization is just gossip. (Lila, p. 62)

Nowadays we seek a middle path, where our biases as observers are present and acknowledged, but hopefully not overly imposed on the subject we’re studying. Thus real people take center stage without ignoring the fact that the cameras are rolling. Ethnography (a fancy term for the attempt to capture some of a culture’s essence in language) is a stage, a dramatization.

In that sense, cultural anthropology starts to feel a lot like storytelling, and the film Throw Down Your Heart is a marvelous example of its potential. This is the story of one of the world’s greatest banjo players visiting the homeland of his chosen instrument. The experience Sascha Paladino’s film creates is like a music video to Night at the Museum: displays step out from behind glass to jam with the audience. This is the new ethnography, off the pages and into your boogie shoes.

The beauty, anthropologically, of what Béla Fleck achieved in his tour of Africa is that he provided a foil for the local cultures to shine. He’s no trained scientist. He is a quiet man who connects with people in the language most familiar to him. The diva Oumou Sangare says: “Béla is somebody who might have a hard time expressing himself with his mouth, but who can express himself perfectly with his fingers.” Mali’s biggest pop star, she says this with passionate, emphatic gestures. Then they jam together, the music swells, and damn if thousands of copies of the local Mali yellow pages don’t all flutter at the thought of Béla’s fingers doing the walking.

He’s an amazing performer— as are the locals he encounters— and somehow the film is really just about that. How refreshing that a project like this doesn’t have to be a study or some sort of mission with a message, but simply an experience. Ironically it succeeds as both a study and message because people doing what they love have a way of creating wisdom and inspiration naturally.

I fell in love with Béla Fleck’s music through his live performances. He’s a master of collaborating with other musicians who, like Béla, deliver a highly memorable stage presence. When I see performances like this, I realize that every generation should embrace the greatest performers of their time. There’s nothing wrong with revering the timeless greats, but there is much to be gained from participation in the now of music.

Headbanger's delight
Maiden in Denver: another item checked off my bucket-list.

Luckily there is an awful lot of music being created live at any given moment on this planet, from Uganda’s bouncing 12-foot wooden marimba (featured in the film) to Iron Maiden last Monday amid a sea of my fellow headbanging fans.

My simple recommendation for this film? Throw down your heart, put on your boogie shoes, and see it.

Thanks for reading. Cheers,


Photos: Béla pickin’ in Africa © Argot Pictures 2006, all rights reserved. The other one’s by me: it’s Iron Maiden performing 6/14/10 at the Denver venue with a name that’s as fun as flossing, Comfort Dental Amphitheatre.

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