Brothers Béla Fleck and Sascha Paladino collaborated a few years ago on the award winning documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, about a trip through West Africa to explore the beginnings of the banjo and cross-culture collaborations. Paladino went on to become the creator of the Disney Junior show Miles From Tomorrowland, which recently presented a new opportunity for the pair to work together again.
The episode, which finds Miles and his sister Loretta on a search for an ancient musical instrument called a Plectrix, premieres Saturday July 8th on Disney Junior. The two spoke with Kyle Meredith about how the episode came together, what went into making it, and their desires for what the audience gets out of it.
Listen to the interview above and then check out a clip from the episode below. We’ve also included the transcript of the interview below.
Kyle Meredith: This is fun for me. It’s not every day I get to wake up and do my research with something like Miles From Tomorrowland. So I’ve already had a great day thanks to you all.
Sascha Paladino: Awesome. Thanks.
Béla Fleck: Did you get to watch the show?
KM: I did. I got the stream this morning and got to see the whole thing. It was really enjoyable because, reading about it, I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into, what it would be and what it would sound like. So once it plays out, it’s a lot of fun.
SP: Neither did we. We had no idea till Béla got into the studio. But it was a really fun collaboration. I came up with the story and then Béla found a way to work his magic into it, which was really fun.
KM: I guess that’s where the questions starts, because you’re coming up with the story… you’ve got Béla and it’s a family affair. Do you write the story with something like that in mind, that you could collaborate on, or did it just happen that the storyline came about and you thought, “Oh I’ve got the right guy for this?”
SP: That’s a great question. It really was written for Béla. Tailor made for my brother. It came out of a previous collaboration, which was this film we made that we finished in 2008 called Throw Down Your Heart, which was a documentary where we went to Africa for five weeks and explored the history of the banjo and where it originally came from, its roots, in Africa. Béla played with all sorts of musicians in four different countries in Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Mali, and Gambia, and one of the things that I really noticed and took away from it, was how amazing it was when Béla worked with these musicians who had a language barrier obviously, but when Béla started playing, they would just suddenly get it. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak the same language. These master musicians would just fall in and start jamming. It was really a unique, pure form of communication. And that idea of music as communication stuck with me and became a theme of the whole series. When I created Miles From Tomorrowland, I wanted the family, Miles and his family, to have this mission of connecting the universe, making connections with different cultures. I’ve always been interested in the idea of breaking down walls between cultures and I’ve done that a lot in the other shows that I’ve worked on as a writer and producer. And Béla has really done that as well with his music. So it just seemed like a cool fit. And in a way, I thought of this episode of Miles as a sequel to Throw Down Your Heart and picked up the same themes and repackaged it in a way that would work for kids. And it fit seamlessly into the series as a whole.
KM: You’ve got that line in the series where one of the characters says “You seriously think a musical instrument can save us right now?”
SP: I’m glad you noticed that. I thought about that a lot. I wanted the character, Miles’s sister who’s sometimes a little cynical, says, “Do you really think music can get us out of this jam?” And it’s like, “actually, yeah!” I hope the episode comes across as affirming and believing in the power of music and what it really can do, because that’s what I saw firsthand when I was traveling with Béla through Africa.
BF: It’s something that I learned about a long time ago before, well you were born but you were a youngster while I traveled around the world with New Grass Revival, a progressive bluegrass band that I was in from 1981 till 1990. We got these state department tours where they would send you to Bangladesh, India, and we went to Turkey, Morocco, and then later with the Flecktones, we went to the pacific rim countries like Singapore and Mongolia, China, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, and I discovered that as a government official, I could ask them to find musicians to jam with me at these locations and they kind of had to do it. So the government would find these musicians to jam with. And then we would start playing music and everybody would just line up. And the musicians would be excited that we took the time to care about them. The officials would get excited. The ambassador would get excited. And it just seemed like something incredible. It just came from my curiosity. I didn’t want to go to these countries and not learn something about their music. And that’s what led to the idea of going to West Africa, which was on my bucket list, but also knowing that it was very unlikely that if I showed up over there and started jamming together, that same reaction wouldn’t happen and we would have a magical experience together. And we did. And Sascha was the person who chronicled it. He made this incredible film about it. That’s the groundwork that led towards this particular episode.
SP: I would say the 11 minutes of Miles was maybe 20 years in the making.
KM: Here you have this Plectrix (in the episode), this thing you call a Plectrix, which is a futuristic instrument and it just so happens to sound like one of the oldest string instruments. If you know what a banjo sounds like, it’s obviously a banjo, which I guess says a lot about the timelessness of the instrument for what you were going for.
SP: That’s a great point. The banjo has been in my head since I was born because Béla was always around playing. When I saw him, I heard the banjo. It’s been a part of my life always. So to me it’s a magical sound and there’s nothing else like it. And I really wanted to capture that idea. The idea in the episode, the Plectrix is this sort of a mysterious instrument from an alien culture and we don’t know much about it. But I had this power to connect creatures who can’t otherwise understand each other. I just thought the banjo was the perfect sound for that. A little otherworldly and just feels like it’s always been around. That’s my personal experience. It always has been around. So when I developed the story, I thought, “Oh, you know what’d be great is to have a connection where this instrument was used to connect with an alien who makes a similar but different sound.” So what we did was have Béla to play two different banjos. He played his regular banjo and his baritone banjo for the sound of the alien. So we created this sort of dueling banjos moment, a tribute to dueling banjos, where Miles and the instrument are trading back and forth, but obviously that’s all Béla playing against himself.
KM: Which was so cool to hear. Béla, for you, when you have this type of storyline in mind, do you have to think of a certain style? Are you thinking “what does a futuristic banjo play like?”
BF: Yeah, I was thinking of trying to come up with something pure and musical that wouldn’t have a particular connotation. It was like being free and being musical but yet not being bluegrass-y or jazzy. It’s one of those things where you don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to do, but you know what you’re not suppose to do. So you try to get into that frame of mind. And this is also one of those things of an improvising musician. A lot of improvising happens unconsciously, you can’t explain them, and there’s things you can do improvising that you could never do if you were composing sitting down trying to write it out. The day before, I was playing around with sounds and messing with ideas, and then when I sat down to actually start recording along with the video, it was “let’s just see what comes.” And pretty soon, I had a nice melody we could pull from. There were a lot of places where I could improvise freely. Well, not that many, but one significant one. One long spot where I could just play the through-music for a whole scene, and that was really fun for me. As a musician, I had never got to do that before.
SP: Yeah, that I hadn’t really expected. There’s this scene where Miles and his sister are searching for the Plectrix and they hear it off in the distance and they follow the sound. I thought, we’ll have it mixed in, but we’ll haver our regular score composer handle the score. But once Béla started playing, I thought that could be really cool if it’s all we hear. And Béla becomes the score. So even though they’re listening to the instrument and it’s within the scene, we can see the music go along with the action. So when they fall into some rocks and down into an underground cavern, the music gets more exciting. It’s almost like a symbiotic relationship between the music and characters which was cool and fun to play with.
KM: As far as the word Plectrix, is there any meaning behind that?
SP: It’s funny you asked. I spent a lot of time thinking about the name for the instrument. I wanted it to have some musical relevance. I just liked the sound of Plectrix. Obviously it’s from the plectrum, but like a lot of the things in the show, I just liked how it sounded. It felt vaguely musical. There’s also a lot of references in the show to our movie, Throw Down Your Heart. Like I said, that experience was a life changer and stayed with me in a lot of ways. There’s a character in the show named Haruna, who’s one of Miles’s best friends, who’s named after Haruna Walusimbi, who’s an amazing thumb piano we met in Uganda. And then Oumou Sangare, that amazing Malian singer, who we spent time with. I used her name as an alien, sort of a mystical all-knowing creature named Oumou who’s also mentioned in this episode. In this episode as well, I named the planet that they go to where they find the instrument, Planet Akonting after the pre-banjo instrument and Béla collaborated with in The Gambia, in West Africa.
KM: Are you going to quiz the kids on this after the episode?
SP: Ha! Maybe so. I’d be so happy if one day some kid is playing with their action figure and they go, “ok, let’s go to Planet Akonting and play the plectrix.” We tried to put a lot of layers into Miles From Tomorrowland in general. We want the show to inspire kids and also to push them a little bit and think about their place in the world and universe. What it means to connect with other cultures. What it means to be a member of a family that’s working together. Things like that. Hopefully get inspire to learn more about our space and potentially learn more about the banjo.
KM: And as the story ends, “Music can really connect the universe.”
SP: Exactly. That line comes at the very end of the episode. There’s a summation and hopefully the message that gets across that gets told in both the story and the music in the episode. And I really believe that in my experience with Béla and Africa, that music can really connect the universe and there should be more of it.