Back in 1994, while Béla Fleck and the Flecktones were prepping themselves for a trip to South Africa, bandleader Fleck took a breather from packing his bags and began fleshing out a new song.
“This was a period when Nelson Mandela had recently become the first democratically elected president, and excitement was palpable,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “We were excited to witness the new South Africa, and that inspired the title.”
He’s talking about “New South Africa,” an instrumental workout that made its debut on the Flecktones’ 1996 album, Live Art. Now, two decades after the song was written, it’s enjoying a second life as a stripped-down duet between Fleck and his wife, Abigail Washburn. Recorded after a year’s worth of tour dates as a duo, the song is one of the highlights on Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, a new album that peels away the pair’s outside influences — which run the gamut from American jazz to Tibetan folk — and focuses strictly on banjo-fueled tunes fit for the front porch. The two lovebirds are the only musicians on the album, which they recorded at their home studio in Nashville.
“We wanted to get a ‘Bela tune’ into the mix, to represent some of his writing in the set,” says Washburn, who recorded her first solo album with Fleck in 2005. “This one seemed to be a tune that could work just as well in a stripped-down duo fashion. The version Bela did with the Flecktones was on his electric banjo, and didn’t really feature the ‘banjo-ness’ of this tune. So it seemed like a new life for the piece.”
Recently, the pair shot a live performance of “New South Africa” in Cannon Beach, Oregon, where they performed on a hilltop surrounded by trees and moss. Climbing up the hill was no problem, but Fleck took a tumble on the way back down, resulting in some muddy clothing — but, thankfully, no damage to his instrument.
“The banjo was fine,” he assures us. “It was worth it!”