When the Illinois-born banjo player and songwriter Abigail Washburn first went to China in 1996, she didn't like it at all. The air was polluted. The constant sound of hammers and drills in Shanghai drove her crazy.
"It seemed the only Chinese people who introduced themselves to me were people who wanted to practice their English," she said. "I was very frustrated. I was not connecting with anybody." So she came back to America.
Eighteen years later, Washburn speaks fluent Mandarin. She collaborates with Chinese musicians and writes Chinese songs. She tours around China, covering Chinese folk songs with an old-time banjo sound.
Some of those songs will be part of Washburn's Sunday's performance at the Spoleto Festival with her husband, the Grammy Award-winning banjo player Bela Fleck, playing by her side. In addition to traditional Appalachian music and innovative acoustic music, audiences will hear Washburn sing "Kang Ding Qing Ge" ("Love Song of Kangding"), a traditional folk song from Sichuan Province in Southwest China.
Fleck is well known for collaborating with African musicians and has visited Africa to explore the banjo's origins. Washburn's music, on the other hand, has close ties with Chinese cultural elements.
"Abby has an amazing ability to connect with people, which she brings to the stage," Fleck said. "She has somehow ended up with an amazing authenticity, which goes into all of her music."
Washburn returned to China a year after that first visit, and "it ended up being magical," she said. She studied Chinese with Lao Wang, a former English teacher who lived in Sichuan and would invite Washburn home for dinner every day. They talked about poetry, stories and the Cultural Revolution. "I found myself laughing and crying," she said.
Picking up the banjo as a clawhammer-style player in 2001, Washburn found a way to express her love for Chinese culture through music. Ever since then, she has been collaborating with musicians from different parts of China.
Wu Fei, a musician who plays a Chinese plucked zither called guzheng, formed the group Wu Force with Washburn and Kai Welch. She said her collaboration with Washburn flows smoothly every time.
"The banjo and the guzheng are both plucked string instruments," Wu said. "The mixture of the two is simply beautiful." The understanding and appreciation of both cultures that she experienced with Washburn, she said, was so strong that they felt they had known each other for a long time the first time they met.
Not everyone was convinced, however. In Gansu Province, northwest of China, Washburn once met a Chinese erhu (a Chinese two-stringed fiddle) player who told her that Americans and Chinese could never play music together. Surprised, Washburn insisted that he play the music on his own.
"When he started playing music, myself and all the band members started playing with him, and it sounded really good," she said. "All of a sudden he wanted to smile, but he didn't want to and tried not to smile."
That night, they ended up performing together in front of 1,400 people. Afterward, the man came up and said that while Chinese and Americans might be different in many ways, they could still make music together.
This is a perfect example of the meaningful cultural exchange that can come from Washburn's music, according to John Holenko, a guitar player and banjo instructor at Hungry Monk Music in Charleston.
"For a long time, traditional Chinese music has been repressed and not allowed to flourish in China and interact with the West," Holenko said.
But Washburn didn't just stop at music collaboration. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, she went to see families affected by that disaster. She would also play concerts at schools, and some children would come to her afterward and sing her songs.
"I sat there for hours listening to the kids," she said. "I wish more Americans could hear those beautiful children who survived this terrible earthquake and hear them singing."
The fruit of that journey became a hip-hop and electronic music album that Washburn made with the Shanghai Restoration Project, a group led by Chinese-American musician Dave Liang.
"I wanted to make a record the kids like and are super proud of," Washburn said. "I thought that would be a record of songs like hip-hop, because that's what they listen to on the radio."
In her many travels, Washburn has found instruments very similar to a banjo virtually everywhere she goes. To her, this is a clear sign that "every human population around the world was desiring to create an instrument beyond the human voice that could express their internal lives and experience to the world."
Anita Xu is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.