Celtic Connections - Béla Fleck

Beyond the boundaries

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Béla Fleck

As Celtic Connections kicks off, Kenny Mathieson revels in the willfully eclectic nature of the festival, an idea Béla Fleck knows all about

What’s in a name? In the case of Celtic Connections, not much, or at least, nothing too literal. Anyone who insisted on the strict application of the name would have found themselves left well behind almost from the launch of the festival back in 1994. Even in that inaugural programme, which included country singer Kathy Mattea, the boundaries of what might be regarded as Celtic were being teased, and in subsequent years those boundaries became increasingly elastic.

It was something that neither Colin Hynd nor his successor, Donald Shaw, was remotely apologetic about. The Celtic/folk core of the festival has always remained, but eclectic expansion rather than rigorous adherence to generic classification has been the hallmark of the event, and big names from jazz, rock and classical music all take their place alongside the traditional singers and instrumentalists from the heartland Celtic traditions in a celebration of music.

Inclusiveness is the guiding principal in this three-week extravaganza, and one that Donald Shaw readily embraced even in his first festival as artistic director in 2007, when he mounted a very prominent focus on American musicians. That included banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, whose Flecktones features jazz-fusion bass star Victor Wooten, saxophonist Jeff Coffin and Future Man on synth-axe drumitar – not an instrument regularly found in Celtic music. Fleck is back this year in an even more eclectic project that underlines the trans-global nature of the festival.

Fleck has moved a long way from his bluegrass roots. His latest album, Jingle All the Way, opens with a group of Tuvan throat singers performing ‘Jingle Bells’. For this visit to Glasgow, he will join up with three musicians from the west African music stronghold of Mali, singer Oumou Sangare, kora maestro Toumani Diabaté and Bassekou Kouyate, who plays an instrument called the ngoni, cited as a kind of lute-like antecedent of the banjo.

Such collaborations are meat and potatoes to the banjo wizard. He is also scheduled to tour with bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussein in 2009, playing a combination of trio music and a Triple Concerto with orchestra. His collaborations with jazz musicians have included working with McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea are a major draw.

The African project is being promoted as ‘Béla Fleck brings the banjo back to Africa’. His travels to Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali to meet and perform with musicians there was charted by Sascha Paladino. The resulting film, Throw Down Your Heart, premiered at SXSW last year, where it won an audience award (see more at at www.throwdownyourheart.com).

An album is scheduled for release in late February, and the film – so far limited to festival screenings – will be more widely available. Fleck plans to tour the project with the Malian musicians in the USA, so Scottish listeners will have a sneak preview in this concert, which will also feature a collaboration between Scottish Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes and Ireland’s Liam Ó Maonlai.

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Sat 17 Jan.

An Evening with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

This year's Celtic Connections opens with the European debut of the reformed Flecktones, fronted by festival favourite Bela Fleck on genre-straddling banjo duties. The line-up of pianist Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist Roy 'Futureman' Wooten will be supplemented by special guests Karan Casey, Kathleen…

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