Abigail Washburn Uses Banjo as Tool for Diplomacy

BY Lauren Knapp  January 10, 2011 at 3:41 PM EDT


Filmed by Lauren Knapp and Anne Strother

For over a decade Abigail Washburn, a singer-songwriter and clawhammer banjo player, knew she wanted to help improve Chinese-American relations. She just never thought she’d be doing it through song.

That Washburn performs folk music at all is thanks to her connection to China, where she spent time as a student.

Washburn did not get a great first impression of China. It wasn’t until she returned for a second visit, with a better grasp on the language, that she began to appreciate the country. An elderly English teacher took Washburn under her wing, teaching her traditional poems and songs.

She first began playing the banjo “in response to having fallen so deeply in love with Chinese culture,” says Washburn.

“I think subconsciously I was seeking something special about America that I could take back with me to China and share with my Chinese friends.” That’s about the time she started translating English songs into Chinese and adapting Chinese tunes to the banjo.

“I thought as long as I have this life to live, I’m going to take this on — I’m going to be a part of China,” says Washburn.

She made a name for herself singing in Chinese on her debut album Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005), and with her collaborative music project known as Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, a group that includes now-husband and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen.

After an earthquake devastated the western province of Sichuan in 2008, she teamed up with Shanghai-based producer David Liang in 2009 to raise money and awareness for the victims. A benefit album, Afterquake, turned the voices of people affected by the disaster into music.

Her latest album, City of Refuge (2011), debuts on Tuesday. It doesn’t feature Washburn singing in Mandarin, but is still full of Chinese influences. A prelude features voices of school children recorded during Afterquake. Guzheng (or Chinese zither) master WuFei contributes string texture. And Beijing-based Mongolian band Hanggai add some throat singing on the final track, ‘Bright Morning Star.’

“It would almost be like ignoring a huge aspect of who I am to try and create something that’s completely free of Chinese Influence,” says Washburn. “I don’t know if I could do it.”

Editor’s Note: Last week Art Beat profiled two American musicians who have studied the connection between music of the Appalachian Mountains and the Himalayas. Click here for that story.