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The bastion of banjo

Béla Fleck is the world’s premier banjo player and shows no signs of slowing down.
 Béla Fleck takes the banjo from its porch stompin roots to modernity.
Image by Courtesy of Béla Fleck
Béla Fleck takes the banjo from its porch stompin’ roots to modernity.

The banjo is oft more associated with straw hats than the world of classical music. Béla Fleck’s life’s work is to change this.

“I would describe it as a high-tech, primitive sound,” the banjoist said. “For me, playing this instrument and caring about it so much is a way of trying to make it more legitimate.”

Fleck’s career spans over 30 years, and he’s collaborated with an impressive number of artists, covering an equally large number of genres. From African ensembles to full orchestras to bluegrass groups, Fleck plucks his signature style all over the map. On Thursday, he’ll bring that eclectic sound to the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley for a show at the Minnesota Zoo with Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet.

Fleck’s love for banjo started when he first heard Earl Scruggs play the theme to “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Something about the sound as a young man inspired Fleck and helped lead him to enroll at the New York City High School of Music and Art in the 1970s.

“It was a fun place to go to school, and it really took the place of college for me,” he said. “I was surrounded by the super talented kids of New York City, from all the boroughs, and that was inspiring. You could see that someone my age had no excuse not to be real good.”

There he developed his playing technique. The banjo is usually a harsh sounding instrument with great volume. When Fleck plays, though, it has a sense of delicacy and feels more similar to a twang-infused lute. This approach to the instrument would influence Fleck’s work for years, though that doesn’t mean he loathes the raucous method of playing banjo.

After graduating high school, Fleck moved to Boston and entered the bluegrass scene, where hard ‘n’ fast banjo picking was crucial. There Fleck joined New Grass Revival, a progressive bluegrass group that he would perform with for the entirety of the 1980s.

But it wasn’t until 1988 that Fleck formed his most famous endeavor — Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

“They’ve been my partners in crime for over 25 years now,” he said. “Improvising with them taught me to try and be relaxed as possible. I’ve never met a great improviser who was totally tense.”

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones incorporated elements of jazz, bluegrass and fusion music to create their explosive sound. Inspiring acts like the Punch Brothers, the group always plays in conversation — any pluck from Fleck’s banjo influences a slap from virtuoso bassist Victor Wooten, which initiates a musical chain reaction that always builds to a zenith convergence of genres as disparate as funk and classical.

Today, Fleck still plays with the Flecktones, holds the record for number of Grammy nominations in different categories and is a serial collaborator, working with everybody he can get in touch with. The banjoist has played with Dave Matthews, Yo-Yo Ma, and his wife, Abigail Washburn, with whom he occasionally tours.

“We just finished our duo album — which we are very proud of,” he said. “This allows us to spend time together with our greatest collaboration of all, our 1-year-old baby boy, Juno.”

Family is just as important to Fleck as music. Looking at his creative output over the years, it’s no surprise that he found a way to combine the two passions into something sustainable.

“For me, music is life and death. It’s my little corner of the world that makes life worth living,” he said. “But the arts in general are important, and not just for the freaks who obsess over it, like me. Mankind is here to do more than survive — we need to inspire each other.”


What: Béla Fleck with Brooklyn Rider
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Minnesota Zoo’s Weesner Family Amphitheater, 13000 Zoo Blvd., Apple Valley
Cost: $42-54.50 


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