Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on May 20th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
As the Cajuns might say, mais oui!
"There's a lot of explaining when you sit down and sing in Chinese," says Abigail Washburn, the banjo-playing-Mandarin-Chinese-singer in question. That's especially true when the music draws on American bluegrass and folk as much as on Chinese roots, and is being played by a Nashville-based string quartet, albeit one that alongside a cellist (Ben Sollee) and violinist (Casey Driessen) -- each established innovators in their own right -- centers on not just one banjo but two, the other being played by the multi-Grammy-winning modern master of the instrument, Béla Fleck. The ensemble, billed as Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, and previewing material from its debut album, released May 20, is nothing if not unique. But in the context of JazzFest, where people are wandering among the 10 stages, flitting between blues, jazz, gospel, rock, reggae and many other sounds, and where many of the acts get just a quick 45 minutes or so to play, there isn't much time to explain.
"I said, 'I love Chinese, and this next song is a love song,' " she says of the New Orleans show. "Béla says that if the music is truly good, it doesn't matter what language you're singing in." And in this case it seemed to be true. In the course of the set, what started as a decent put hardly packed crowd grew to a sardine-like gathering, spilling far beyond the immediate Fais Do Do territory, attracted equally by 'A Kazakh Melody' and her haunting version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's as-relevant-as-ever 'Strange Things,' not to mention the common-ground mash-up of 'Kangding Qingge'/'Old-Timey Dance Party.'
Now, Washburn, 30, has become pretty accustomed to presenting her music for people who might not really be familiar with this Chinese-Nashville-bluegrass-folk-string-quartet concept -- but largely from the other side of the equation. Most of the shows she's done with this group have taken place not on this continent but in China during the past few years, and for the locals there the explanations have had to be about the American elements in the music.
"When we'd play at a university in China, people would ask, 'What kind of music is this? Bluegrass?' " she says. "Some times there would even be a sign behind us that said 'American Bluegrass.' And it's kind of funny that kids might go away thinking this is bluegrass. Say Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver go over and they say, 'Wait! Where's your other banjo and cello?' "
China is, though, where this story begins -- well, Washburn was born in Evanston, Ill. and lived in Minnesota before going to Colorado College in Boulder. But her unlikely journey to this strange musical territory started when she went to China when she was 18, which may answer your question of how she came to speak Chinese, let alone sing it. It wasn't music that drew her but rather being a Colorado College freshman on a seven-week summer program. It was not cultural love at first sight -- she was frustrated with seeming, as she believed it, a "tourist with money" to the Chinese and very limited in terms of interactions by her lack of communications skills. Upon return, she figured she'd never go back. But she found herself inspired by a quote from a Gandhi speech she'd heard many times in growing up: "Be the change you want to see in the world."
"That's the thing that really drove me back to China," she says. "I couldn't recognize the feelings I had about China and how I was perceived there. Nobody was going to do it for me, and to me it represented a bigger pattern of the lack of two cultures to find common ground, though within me. I could see this larger dynamic of geopolitical values in my own spirit and I thought I had to find a resolution of that in me. So I went back."
This journey took her to Chengdu in the central Sichuan province, the location of the recent earthquake devastation, and this time she found herself enthralled. "I fell in love with the Chinese people and by the end of that trip felt deeply connected to Chinese culture," she says. (At press time, a worried Washburn had been unable to communicate with friends who live in the area recently devastated by earthquake.)
When she went back to Colorado, she changed her major to Asian studies, learned classical Chinese language and then upon graduation took a job with a government relations consulting firm in Beijing, with plans to get a law degree. Music was at best a hobby, from singing in high school and college choirs, occasionally sitting in as backup vocalist in local reggae and soul bands. But in China she was drawn to Chinese melodies and folk songs as her connection with the culture deepened. Ironically, it was this that led her to American folk music.
"When I came home to America, I would feel nobody could possibly understand what I'd learned and who I'd become," she says. "But right after college I was searching subconsciously, I think, for something in American culture that would make me proud of it and connected to it in that way. I had one of those revelatory moments where there was a record of Doc Watson in the background singing 'Shady Grove' and playing the banjo. I was mesmerized, went to the speaker and played it over and over and thought, 'This is it! This is the sound!' And I went and bought a banjo."
She still had no intention of pursuing music as a career and was planning a few years ago a full move to China. Before that, though, she undertook a five-week trip around the States, trying various things she'd been meaning to do, such as a several-day meditation retreat. At the end of that she made a stop at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Louisville, Ky., where she and her banjo got into an impromptu jam with several other banjo-toting women. A record label executive happened to hear them, invited the ensemble to audition and then sent them to Nashville to record a demo. While that group didn't continue beyond that, Washburn got a solo deal with Nettwerk Records (home to Sarah McLachlan) and around the same time met another all-female, bluegrass-influenced group named Uncle Earl and started playing with them on weekends (and with whom she still plays when she can). In the course of making her first album, 'Song of the Traveling Daughter,' she made the musical acquaintance of Sollee and Fleck, the latter ultimately producing the sessions, on which she introduced the notion of mixing Chinese language and melodies with American folk and her own distinct, dreamscape originals. When the prospect of a Chinese tour came up, she invited the musicians to join her, and the Sparrow Quartet was born.
For the new album, Fleck remained as producer, helping shape an album that flows from start to finish, beginning with a brief instrumental 'Overture' that manages to incorporate the breadth of musical and cultural themes. And transcending the basic concept are such soaring originals as 'Great Big Wall in China,' a musical/lyrical representation of Washburn living out the dream that started her on this journey in the first place.
"I was going to be a legal scholar in China, and this music thing landed in front of me," she says. "Granted, I went through the door. But I feel thing is going on I don't understand. I'm in a band with great musicians, but how did this come together? I can't fathom it. I can give you historical events that led up to it, but I can't explain."
Of course, that doesn't mean she's leaving the future totally to serendipity. "One of my ideas is to go to China for six weeks and focus on studying opera and folk singing, collaborate with friends there -- take my recording rig and cut some demos, have creative experiences," she says. "I do envision another kind of chamber group, but one that goes across to having Chinese musicians and instruments. I'm enchanted with jazz recordings from China from the 1920s, including a lot of Chinese instruments playing familiar tunes. Would love to incorporate that into a larger piece."
Listen to the song!