Abigail Washburn

How the East Was Won

Music Features Abigail Washburn
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Small enough to be freed from their cases in the crowded taxi, the banjo and fiddle ease everyone’s nerves on the ride from the Shanghai airport into town. Besides me, the audience for this impromptu gig includes rubber-necking passengers and the van’s Chinese driver. “It ain’t half bad,” he says, tapping the steering wheel almost in time as he weaves in and out of the crawling traffic.

This is cultural exchange in the Middle Kingdom.

Led by Abigail Washburn, the musicians are four of America’s brightest up-and-coming folk, traditional, old-time and bluegrass musicians, all based in Nashville. Washburn’s banjo and voice has caught the attention not only of our cab driver and comrades in traffic, but also Nettwerk Records, who will release the 27-year-old’s first full-length record, Song of the Traveling Daughter, on Aug. 2. Casey Driessen’s fiddle regularly backs up musical giants including Béla Fleck, Tim O’Brien, Steve Earle and Blue Merle, but today it has to compete with the cacophony of car horns on Shanghai’s elevated highway. Amanda Kowalski’s upright bass is still in its case; her feet, however, are providing some rhythm as she clogs in place. Tyler Grant couldn’t get his guitar out, but his backing vocals complete the traveling jam session.

It’s day seven in China for the four musicians, and Shanghai is the fourth city on the tour, following eight shows at universities and nightclubs. In the next two days, there’ll be five more shows, including performances at the cultural section of the American consulate and the home of the American Consul General. Washburn asked three of her friends to join her on this quest to take Appalachian music—to which she’s added some Chinese flavor by singing some of the lyrics in Mandarin—to the most populous nation on the planet. They all signed on for the trip, despite each musician’s packed calendar, the lack of any financial incentive and a schedule that Kowalski dubs “the most intense ever.”

Washburn’s first trip to China was during her freshman year at Colorado College in 1996.

“It was completely intriguing to me, the idea of China,” she says. “China was the first time I truly felt like an outsider. I fell in love with the process of trying to become intimate with the culture.” She returned the following year for six months of language study in Chengdu. The China bug took full hold; Washburn twice attended Middlebury College’s prestigious Chinese summer language program before returning to Beijing in 2000, where she took an internship at a PR firm.

Her intense interest in China notwithstanding, the musical side of Washburn’s life remained an integral part of her existence. “I’d been singing all my life,” she says. “In choirs; in reggae, soul and rock bands; and in jam sessions.” After jamming at a multitude of bluegrass festivals she attended across the country with her former boyfriend—a bluegrass guitarist and mandolin player—it was a short hop from there to old-time music.

But it was her love affair with China that motivated the change. “I discovered so much about Chinese culture, and was blown away by it. It made me think about—and look into—my own culture, which is how I discovered old-time music, and I fell in love with it.”

She combined her two interests in a performance at Middlebury’s talent show, performing her own Chinese translation of Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone” (“Dong tian lai you zou”). “At that point, it was a novelty act,” she recalls. “People thought: ‘Oh, isn’t that cute: She plays banjo and sings in Chinese.’” In October of 2002, Washburn was en route to Nashville when she stopped in Louisville for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention. A friend convinced her to sing something in Chinese during the hallway jam sessions that are as much a part of the convention as the industry workshops and showcases. Once again, she was singing Gillian Welch’s tune in Mandarin. “Then this guy comes up to me and asks what language I was singing,” recalls Washburn. “He says: ‘My brother lives in Shanghai and he’d love to hear this!’ and he tapes it. A year later, the tape makes its way to New York, and I’m being asked to contribute Chinese material to a reality TV show soundtrack!” Quest USA, billed as the first Chinese reality show in the U.S., went on the air in 2004; Washburn supplied three songs—two originals and her translation of Welch’s tune—to the show’s soundtrack.

In another hallway at the same IBMA convention, it was her voice, and not her Mandarin proficiency, that caught the attention of a record executive. After witnessing a jam session, he invited two of the four musicians up to his label’s suite to perform; a contract was offered, but Washburn later turned it down.

In the meantime, Washburn joined Uncle Earl, an all-girl, old-time string quartet. Uncle Earl is part of the new generation of musicians eager to dig into and help popularize traditional American music, but not even the most eager young musician trying to spread the gospel of old-time could’ve ever dreamed of attempting to garner an audience of 1.3 billion. Except that is, for Washburn, the trio of musicians she brought to China for the ride and Nettwerk Records. “Look, I’ll show you,” insists Washburn, who pulls out a copy of the contract. “Right here it talks about how they agree that me spending time in China is a part of my development as an artist.”

"Welcome the country band ‘Bluegrass and Old Time,’”

reads the banner outside the performance hall at Xihua University, near the Sichuanese capital of Chengdu, the first stop on a partially State Department-funded, three-city tour of university campuses. Eight years after her leaving Chengdu, Washburn is finally back.

The focus of the group’s China tour is cultural exchange. In addition to educating Chinese musicians and audiences about the history and development of American music, local musicians have the opportunity to talk to and play with the visitors. After each show, the four Americans are swarmed with people eager to know what exactly the banjo is, why Driessen’s violin doesn’t sound like the one they play, whether Kowalski can do another dance for them, and how Grant gets his fingers to move so fast.

Inside Xihua University’s theatre, a wall-sized poster of a guitarist serves as the backdrop for the group’s first official show.

At each of the three universities in Chengdu and Chongqing, the band’s arrival is met with murals, banners, bouquets of flowers and lavish dinner banquets. While the musicians get to work setting up the stage and helping the “sound crew” figure out how to use the gear at their disposal—a common occurrence at each tour stop—Washburn is greeted by a half-dozen singers from the school’s choir. She teaches them the chorus to the old-time classic, “Little Birdie,” in both English and Chinese. They, in turn, teach her the famed folk song “Moli hua” (“Jasmine Flower”). As the soundcheck continues, more onlookers materialize. In their military uniforms, the soldiers posted in the concert hall request to be photographed with the musicians. With an initial trepidation that quickly vanishes, the musicians happily oblige. It’s another of the many moments of utter confusion for the visitors.

In addition to “official” gigs, Washburn collaborates with—to varying degrees of success—folk singers who play along with a range of Chinese instruments including erhu (two-stringed fiddle), zhongruan (short-necked four-string lute), pipa (four-stringed lute) and dombra (a two-stringed lute). She’s most excited, though, about the potential for jamming with the members of Iz, a Kazakh folk five-piece band whose members hail from Xinjiang, a province at the fringe of the Middle Kingdom, more Central Asian than Chinese.

“Yeah, come on out,” says Mamuer Rayeskan, the temperamental man behind Iz. “But I listened to her music, and I doubt anything will work out.” His band—which plays mainly the Kazakh folk songs that Mamuer, a Kazakh-Chinese, was raised on—has received critical acclaim in his adopted home of Beijing and also in France, where the band toured over the summer. The first hours of Washburn’s visit to the home of one of the band’s members are slow going. Washburn carefully chooses a song she hopes will work with the others, and though most of the members of Iz are eager to add guitar, percussion, doumbra, flute, Jew’s harp and other folk instruments, the band’s frontman seems reticent. The move from showing to jamming is slow.

“Mamuer started off saying that the whole jam thing wasn’t going to work,” Guo Long, Iz’s percussionist, will later recall. “But he ended up playing traditional Kazakh tunes on the banjo, and singing and playing along with Washburn’s songs. He really wants to go out and get a banjo now.”

Another new banjo fan is converted at Chongqing Southwest Normal University. Pipa virtuoso Fan Shuying curiously picks at the instrument both before and after the band’s performance, quickly working out basic riffs. A week later, when Washburn returns to Chongqing for further study and to give a lecture, it’s Shuying playing the banjo while five of her classmates join Washburn singing the spiritual “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

Four cities, two weeks and more than 10 gigs after her arrival, Washburn and I are back in Shanghai traffic for another cross-cultural jam session.

Driving us across the river from Shanghai is the lead baritone of the Shanghai Opera House, Zhang Feng. He’s a slick, worldly opera singer who delights in bursting into song in public—something he was forced to do when Italian customs agents were blocking his entry into their country because of paperwork problems. Today, while navigating the bustling streets of Pudong on the way to a rehearsal, he’s trying to teach Washburn the words to “Zai na yaoyuan de difang” (“In That Distant Place”), a love song from the Northwestern province of Qinghai.

After stumbling through her first lesson, Washburn—sitting shotgun—tries unsuccessfully to interest the opera star in learning “The Wayfaring Stranger.” “It’s about trying to find your way in a crazy world,” pleads Washburn, as Zhang Feng pulls over to ask directions. In between humming, hawing, u-turns and cursing the map that isn’t telling him what he wants to know, the maestro insists Washburn teach him “Little Birdie” instead.

The soundtrack for this rush-hour ride, with Zhang’s operatic tones balanced by Washburn’s subtler voice, is almost as surreal as the idea that a suburban American girl would—a mere two years after deciding to become a professional musician—become an ambassador for traditional American music. Or that a traditionally-trained Chinese opera singer who’s performed solo concerts at Carnegie Hall might be speeding along in traffic singing, in his chestiest opera-house voce, a thickly accented version of a sweet little American song about a bird that can fly “so high.”