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Bela Fleck and the Flecktones pose outdoors.

Q&A: Banjo master Béla Fleck and the Flecktones return to Symphony Hall 

With namesakes like Béla (for Bartok), Anton (for Webern) and Leoš (for Janáček), Béla Anton Leoš Fleck’s destiny as a classical musician seems preordained. But it took a virtuoso banjoist playing American bluegrass music to spark the connection that would alter the destiny of banjoist Béla Fleck.

Fleck first gained fame as a member of the New Grass Revival, formed by bluegrass icon Sam Bush. In 1988, he formed the Flecktones — with Howard Levy on piano and harmonica, Future Man on percussion and Victor Wooten on bass — for a single performance on PBS’ The Lonesome Pine Specials

Thirty years later, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones is a renowned group at the vanguard of classical, jazz, bluegrass, electric blues and folk music. Fleck and his bandmates have kicked off a tour to mark the anniversary and celebrate the collaborative chemistry that’s kept them a cutting-edge band for more than three decades.  

In advance of the Grammy Award-winning quartet’s performance at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Wednesday, Fleck spoke to ArtsATL about the sound that activated his addiction, finding fluency musically when words get in the way and the desire to pass along his knowledge to the next generation.

ArtsATL: What is your earliest memory of being moved or changed by the sound of music?

Béla Fleck: I remember hearing the Beverly Hillbillies theme, with Earl Scruggs playing the banjo, thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I was probably four or five years old at the time.

Béla Fleck plays a banjo.
Béla Fleck, who grew up idolizing Earl Scruggs, is now a banjo icon in his own right.

ArtsATL: What was it about the tone that captivated your imagination as a child growing up in New York City?

Fleck: It was the banjo in particular, although now I can realize that the sound of that band, Flatt & Scruggs, just knocked me out. Now that I know all the banjo players, I’ve found that most who play three-finger bluegrass style were activated by Earl Scruggs. They’re like preactivated banjo people, and once they hear Earl Scruggs, all of a sudden they become banjo-loving zombies looking for a banjo’s blood to suck. I was one of those, and he just turned me into a convert. 

From then on, I was a banjo fan but kept it a secret because that was not a popular thing up in New York City back then. Plus, you had to have an ego to think you could play like Flatt & Scruggs, so I never even tried.

ArtsATL: What made you reconsider?

Fleck: I tried to play a little bit of guitar, and it didn’t go that well. But then my grandfather, who didn’t even know that I was into banjo, ran into one at a garage sale in upstate New York and bought it for a few bucks. All of a sudden, there was one in my lap when I went to visit him, and I was so excited. On the train home, there was a guy who tuned it up for me and showed me a few things. That was incredibly fortunate, too, because the folk boom had just been happening — it was the early ’70s. I was 15 years old and just pretty much an addict from then on.

ArtsATL: There is a scene in the 2008 documentary Throw Down Your Heart — about your search for the banjo’s original iterations in Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Maliwhere you show a young boy how to string a banjo before placing the instrument in his arms. The look on his face as he started to play was a mix of curiosity, gratitude and awe. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of his future and your past.

Fleck: When you see them glowing, you know you’re onto something. You know you’ve got a chance to have an impact because kids are impressionable. But there has to be a genuine interest. 

The little boy’s name is Mustapha Kouyate, and he’s gone on to be a great, great musician like his dad, Bassekou Kouyate. I don’t know that Mustapha plays the banjo much now, but you could just see that musical spark when he was a child.

ArtsATL: You have improvised, composed and collaborated with musicians in Africa, Asia and Europe. Were the respective language barriers a liability or an asset?

Fleck: I don’t see them as significant barriers. I’ve always found that once you start playing music together, language is almost unnecessary and that we’re actually speaking musical languages. 

When I first was on tour in India, Northern Africa and Turkey with the New Grass Revival in the 1980s on State Department tours, I discovered that I could ask ahead for local musicians to play with, and the State Department people would find them for me. We would get together in a room, and I was just so eager to see what I could learn from them. I’d start playing along, and everybody would get so happy, we didn’t have to be able to speak to each other. We’d find a way.

ArtsATL: John Coltrane famously sought out Wayne Shorter while he was an emerging musician. Later in life, when Shorter was asked how John Coltrane found him, Shorter replied, “All the egg-scramblers know who the other egg-scramblers are.”

Fleck: That’s right [laughs]. I love it!

ArtsATL: How do musicians find members of their tribe regardless of geography, language, culture or genre?

Fleck: It’s a lot easier now, but you usually have some help with friends in the banjo community. My hero was Tony Trischka. He was my teacher, I was kind of his protégé, and helped me get jobs. 

Now, there’s a guy named Noam Pikelny, who plays with a band called Punch Brothers, who started coming to me and asking me to show him stuff when he was a little, short, fat kid. As time goes on, you start to realize you won’t be around forever, and you’re just thrilled to see young people interested in what you’re doing. You want some of these ideas that you’ve learned not to be wasted and discarded when you’re gone.

I’m starting to put more attention into teaching now, in my 60s, than I have in 40 years. There was a time when I needed to teach to make a living. Now I’m doing it because I really want to make sure that a lot of these ideas I’ve had can be shared with someone.