Q&A with Abigail Washburn

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck, wife and husband, both banjo players.

If Abigail Washburn hadn't been discovered playing banjo outside a Louisville music festival almost a decade ago, she might have ended up studying and practicing law in Beijing. Her love for Chinese culture brought her 7,000 miles away from the U.S., exposing her to Chinese folk songs she will perform on June 1 at Spoleto Festival USA.

Q: Tell us about your adventures in China.

A: I was in China for the first time in 1996, at Fudan University in Shanghai. Shanghai was totally under construction at that time. There was a constant sound of hammers, drills - and the air was so polluted. I didn't speak Chinese, so I had trouble making Chinese friends. It seemed the only Chinese people who introduced themselves to me were people who wanted to practice their English. They were not interested in becoming friends with me. I was very frustrated. I was not connecting with anybody.

So I decided that I didn't like China and I came back to America. I said, "I'm not going back to China again." But I couldn't sleep at night. I kept waking up thinking this was a problem. I was disconnecting with 1.3 billion people living on this planet, and that's not a good thing. So I went there the next year. I was in Sichuan, and it ended up being magical. I met Lao Wang and she invited me to her home every day, making me dumplings and amazing dinner. We talked about poetry and stories. She told me about her family and the Cultural Revolution. I found myself laughing and crying. It's just full of life. It changed me deeply. Ever since, I've decided I was going to try to help other Americans also find a way to appreciate China.

Q: How did you end up performing in China?

A: I started learning Chinese in 1996 and playing the banjo in 2001. The first time I went to China for a tour was 2003, when I played with Chinese musicians, and one of the first groups was Hanggai (which would become a renowned Mongolian acoustic string band). In 2004, I met a pipa teacher from the China Conservatory. She found me after a show I gave at Peking University. She, me and one guzheng player, together with another zhongruan player, played together as a four-person band many times in Beijing. (The pipa, guzheng and zhongruan are all plucked Chinese instruments.)

In 2006, the Sparrow Quartet (a group that featured Washburn and Fleck) played in China. The Chinese officials welcomed us to Tibet, and we played all over Tibet. At the end, all of us decided we should make a record of the songs we performed. So it came out, and that's why we had the song "Tai Yang Chu Lai Xi Yang Yang" ("Joy at the Sunrise") in it.

Q: How did your 2008 visit to Sichuan end up yielding a hip-hop and electronic music album?

A: It was the fall of 2008 that I went to Sichuan after the earthquake. I played a bunch of concerts in schools all over Sichuan. At the end of the show the kids would come up to me and say, "We want to sing for you." I sat there for hours listening to the kids. They were just special and it was really a sweet experience. I wished more Americans could hear those beautiful children who survived this terrible earthquake and hear them singing, hear (about) their feelings and their recovery.

So I started having the idea of a record with these children in the earthquake recovery zone. I called Dave Liang (a Chinese-American electronic music producer) when I got back, and he had worked a remix of "Kang Ding Qing Ge" ("Love Song of Kangding"). I told him I wanted to go back to make a record with those kids, and I thought to myself, "What kind of music would the kids listen to?" They were listening to contemporary music (that) had beeps like electronic guitar. I thought I could make a record of all that acoustic music with the kids, but I didn't think they would like it that much. I wanted to make a record they would like and be super proud of. That could be a record of songs like hip-hop. So I came to Dave and that's the first time in my life I collaborated with a hip-hop electronic musician. The kids loved it. When we played back the songs with awesome beeps and electronic stuff going on, they were so excited.

Q: What do the banjo music and Chinese culture share in common?

A: Music is a universal need of humans to express themselves and their emotion to communicate with anyone outside themselves. It is to communicate beauty and joy. America has the banjo, which came from Africa. China essentially has a banjo as well, it has the sanxian (literally "three strings"). Everywhere you go in the world, there's something like a banjo. Why? Because every human population around the world was desiring to create an instrument beyond the human voice that could express their internal lives and internal experience to the world. So there is no surprise when I went to China and played with a sanxian player, pipa player, guzheng player or zhongruan player. We are sharing the basic drive to express something internal. In general, it sounds very similar.

I remember once we were arriving in Lanzhou (a city in northwestern China) to play music. We found a wonderful erhu player, an old guy from the radio orchestra, and he showed up and obviously he didn't want to play with us. He said that Americans and Chinese could never play music together. I was like, "What do you mean we could not collaborate?" I was just really surprised that he said that. I said, "Maybe you are right, but would you just play music for us so that we could hear your Chinese music?" When he started playing music, myself and all the band members started playing with him and it sounded really good. All of a sudden he wanted to smile but he didn't want to and tried not to smile. That night we performed together in front of 1,400 people. At the end of the show he came up to me and said, "Americans and Chinese might be very different in many ways, but we can make music together." I learned that that night.

Anita Xu is a Goldring Arts Journalism from Syracuse University.