A few months ago I watched a documentary called Throw Down Your Heart that followed genre-bending banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck as he traversed Africa from east to west re-introducing the banjo to African music. Most folks don’t realize that the banjo is an instrument that originated in Africa. For that matter, many don’t realize how much of American roots music (particularly bluegrass) was influenced by African slaves making music on banjos.
I have been a peripheral fan of African music since I was young. Many of my favorite albums as a teenager were by artists such as Paul Simon, The Talking Heads, and Peter Gabriel who fused African melodies and rhythms with rock music. So from a music standpoint I was excited to see how Bela Fleck would incorporate African style music into his banjo playing. But what I came across moved me in a much deeper way than I expected.
Here are a few observations on the documentary:
- He became a student of their music – As he traveled from town to town meeting with African musicians and singers he became a student of their particular regional style. He didn’t try to get them to play bluegrass or pop music from the U.S. but instead listened and studied their music on their terms.
- Joining the song – When he finally joined the song of others his approach was that of musical conversation. Again, he wasn’t looking for these people to back him up in his agenda but rather entered into what they were playing and joined it in a way that was every bit as conversational as musical. His banjo playing didn’t dominate or take over their music but conversed with it.
- Transcendent music – As Bela Fleck joined these indigenous varieties of African music the result was something quite transcendent. The music that came forth was somehow greater than the individuals playing it. The result was something bigger than either African or Western styles of music. It’s as if their little piece of musical community brought them in touch with something beyond any of them.
- Rediscovery – There is no doubt that all forms of western music from Jazz to blues to rock and bluegrass would not exist apart from the influence of African music. Bela Fleck came to Africa as a benefactor of African music to reintroduce them to an instrument that was lost on much of the continent. He helped them rediscover something of their own music that has disappeared. Sometimes outsiders have a way of reminding us of things that have forgotten because they bring a particular perspective which insiders can so easily miss.
I found that I was truly moved by this documentary and that it stirred something deep within me. What I saw was a picture of incarnational ministry. In John 1:14 we read “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. (The Message).”
I am absolutely floored when I think about how Jesus spent 30 years just living normal life as a human before he ever healed person or gave a sermon. Jesus moved into our neighborhood, the world where we live and experienced life on our terms. This idea is captured so poignantly in Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. The very compassion of Christ is evidenced by the incarnation.
As the pastor of a church it is so easy to get caught up in thinking that the main success of a church is getting people to show up on a Sunday morning or getting people to attend this or that group or to participate in this or that program. But I wonder if that kind of thinking is really backwards. Perhaps our aim might be better expressed in not trying to get folks who are not in church to come to a Sunday morning service but instead to truly enter into the world of others.
A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a woman in our church. I expressed that I felt compelled to go to a local bar to begin getting to know some of the people in our community. The only thing is that this particular bar is not really the type of place I would normally go. I shared how I felt a little intimidated to go in there. Her reply was “It’s interesting how you are talking about being intimidated to move out of your comfort zone and yet think of how intimidating it would be for some folks outside of church to come to a church service for the first time. We expect them to get over their fear but we are not so easily willing to do the same.”
When I reflect on the documentary it stirs my heart to want to be someone who can step into the world of others better—others who may be very different from me. I spent so much of my life as one who was quick to tell others what they need to believe, but I long to be a better listener, to truly love others without an agenda. I want to hear the song in the hearts of others and join the conversation, not to dominate or take over but to discover together what God is up to both in their story and my own story. Perhaps we might just stumble upon some even greater music as we converse, music that draws us ever closer to the one who created us.