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- Posted on May 5th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Next week, the banjo player and singer will release 'Afterquake,' an EP of songs drawn from the recent trips, marking the one-year anniversary of the May 12 earthquake that devastated the area. Billed as "presented by Abigail Washburn and the Shanghai Restoration Project," the set features a folk-electronica approach, its mix of field recordings and traditional music interpretations (both American and Chinese) put together with distinctly modern atmospheres by Washburn and New York-based Dave Liang, who has been creating cross-cultural soundscapes under the Shanghai Restoration Project moniker. Listen to the song 'Sala' here:
That may come as a (no pun intended) shock to people who have heard the Chinese-bluegrass-Nashville-chamber hybrid of last year's 'Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet' album, which featured fellow banjoist Bela Fleck. But it's a reflection of what she encountered.
"I really had no idea the enormity of the situation until I went into the devastated areas with Sichuan Quake Relief," Washburn says. "Beyond the piles of rubble that now consume most of the ground space in Wenchuan County, the injury to the human spirit is palpable. The numbers dead, missing, homeless are hard to determine. The official numbers say 88,000 dead, 71,000 missing and upwards of 4 million left homeless. According to NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and local disaster relief leaders these numbers seem low when comparing the reported losses community to community. Some people in the region keeping tabs believe that 11 million people are still homeless, hundreds of thousands dead, and a shocking number reported from the Qiang community itself says that one-third of their ethnic group perished in the rubble."
But she also found remarkable resilience, as well as inspiration:
"One phrase that the Chinese say about themselves is 'Zhongguoren hui chi ku' –'Chinese people are able to eat bitterness,'" Washburn says. "It appears true. Although the losses are beyond comprehension, complaints are few, and hard work to recover is ubiquitous in the region."
And that's exactly what she wanted to capture in the new recordings -- as well as a spirit to which she wanted to contribute. But it was all so overwhelming that she wasn't sure how she could help. The answer came via a residency she took in the past winter at the Art School of Sichuan University, teaching American traditional music to Chinese singing majors. An old friend, Peter Goff, was serving as president of the Sichuan Quake Relief organization and asked her to take the music out into the community.
"He asked if I would volunteer to perform at some of the relocation schools that they bring donations to in Sichuan," she says. "We spent a day and a half visiting six schools. It was a whirlwind of performing and interacting with kids. After the performances, many of the kids would want to sing their songs for me and share stories of missing their parents and other emotional scars of the earthquake, often ending in tears. I had no idea how far millions of people still were from rebuilding their homes, much less recovering their lives. I went back to the States in late December 2008 trying to figure out what more I could do to help."
That was when she met Liang, who had been visiting his parents in China at the time of the quake (they felt it, though they were 1,000 miles away).
"We had the idea that we should do some kind of musical project together in China," she says "It wasn't until my touring with the Sparrow Quartet was done in February that I thought of going into the relocation schools and the disaster zone to make music with the kids and parents themselves. Dave immediately agreed, and with crunched timing, given the release date of May 12, we set out buying plane tickets for only three weeks later. We contacted Sichuan Quake Relief, documentary photographer Amanda Kowalski (see a slide show drawn from the trip here) and videographer Luke Mines and became the team that is releasing 'Afterquake.' The entire project was recorded, mixed and completed in Sichuan between March 13 and 27."
Dave Liang, too, was overwhelmed by what they saw on the trip.
"While I had never been to Sichuan -- I had come close having visited the neighboring province of Yunnan the previous year -- I felt strangely connected to what was going on," he says. " From everything I saw or read, it seemed as if everyone in that region had lost someone, whether it was a parent or child. I had never been able to comprehend personal loss on such a grand scale and to this day have difficulty coming to terms with what happened."
In that context, it was hard for them to know where even to begin in terms of the music collaboration. Inspiration, though, proved plentiful.
"Abby and I knew we wanted to focus on crafting songs around post-earthquake sounds, but we didn't know exactly what that would involve beyond a few basic ideas," Liang says. " What we didn't expect was that almost all of the sounds we recorded were optimistic and uplifting: the traditional songs the children remembered their parents singing to them growing up, the determined sounds of reconstruction, the carefree environment of the playground, or a chorus of children laughing in the classroom."
"We had a major collaborator in Sichuan Quake Relief," says Washburn. "They scouted the main school we worked in and made sure logistics were taken care of. They even set up performances and classes for Dave and me to be introduced to the entire student population so they would be familiar with us and understand why we were hanging around the campus. The kids were excited to have us there and excited to be a part of whatever it was we were doing to 'help' them. The same was true with the parents back in the disaster zone. Lee, our liaison from SQR, would explain in Sichuanese why we were there and that it is for the good of bringing awareness and hopefully resources to their children's schools and the region in general. Everyone was moved by the gesture and eager to help us in return. It felt like very good will all around."
Translating this into pieces that captured the scenes through both of the artists' sensibilities came naturally.
"The musical goals felt open and filled with possibility," Washburn says. "I just knew that I wanted a chance to collaborate with the Shanghai Restoration Project, and that I wanted to create music that would feature the kids' stories and voices, while creating music that could be accessible across a wide spectrum regardless of the issue, so that there might be new awareness of the needs in Sichuan and new willingness to help on the part of those drawn to the music."
Adds Liang, "For Abby and myself, a folk-electronic hybrid project was simply our way of creatively 'meeting in the middle.' As an electronic artist, I developed a deeper appreciation of the folk genre after working with Abby. During the production process, Abby was always focused on 'why' we should include certain sounds and making sure everything contributed to the story we wanted to tell. Electronic artists definitely have a tendency to simply incorporate 'what sounds cool' into their music, myself included, and having Abby's continuous folk perspective was both refreshing and rewarding."
Soon they hope to have enough funds raised by this project to be able to take it back to Sichuan and share the results with their local collaborators, and of course to bring further attention and money to the rebuilding efforts. And Washburn is eager to be able to re-establish her relationship with a region and people with whom she fell in love on her first visit, in 1997.
"Sichuan is rich with culture, literally wet with it," she says. "The air is so heavy with moisture it hangs in the air almost visibly and slows everything down. You find yourself spending hours in teahouses going through piles of sunflower seeds, drinking the same cup of tea and playing mahjong or cards. People stop and talk and inquire and invite you in. Equally laid back and self-possessed are the two adjectives I can think of to describe Chengdu. Then there is the rest of Sichuan -- so diverse, in terms of both people and geographies."