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appily, one day she overheard an old woman speaking to a couple of blonde children in a playground in perfect British English. “I went over and just started talking to her and she invited me to dinner, so I went over for dinner and asked her if she’d be my tutor and she ended up making me food and having me sit with her three days a week in her apartment. I had the most life-nourishing experience ever.” Literally. Despite subse- quently becoming vegetarian, Washburn says she’d go back for the mouthwatering ground pork meatballs with water chest- nuts, ginger, garlic and chives in a deli- cious sweet and sour sauce, made in a clay pot and served over boiled rice…


Does this, I wonder, bring any music to


mind? “Yes,” smiles Washburn (un-dis- tracted by Welch’s suggestion – “Dean Martin”) and still in a bit of a food induced reverie, “a beautiful old Chinese folk song.” Because the inspired Mrs Wong did- n’t just teach Washburn how to prepare the local delicacies, she also taught her how to sing the local traditional songs.


But it was only after Washburn got her first banjo and started translating American songs into Mandarin in order to sing them for her new friends, that she started thinking seriously about Chinese music and its cross-cultural possibilities. Reading Chinese poetry one night inspired her thirst for more, along with a desire to set it to music. So, ably assisted by old Mrs Wong, she immersed herself in the culture and came to think that due to the com- mon use of pentatonic scales, Appalachian mountain music and Chinese folk had at least a place to meet.


Back in the States, after passing the exam which meant she was on her way to study law in China, Washburn embarked on her ‘farewell tour’ travelling down the East Coast learning banjo music. She took time out in Massachusets to spend five days meditating in an ashram. Very uncomfortable she says, sitting for three hours four times a day, but it was after this that everything changed. She was offered her record deal and instead of just staying a while as planned with her then boyfriend in Nashville, she remained in Tennessee and joined the all-girl old-time music band Uncle Earl.


Her first solo album, released in 2005 –


Song Of The Travelling Daughter (Nett - werk) – enabled her to express her Chinese and Appalachian folk inspirations, which she couldn’t give full rein to in the ‘g’Earl band. The album was produced by Bela Fleck, generally considered to be the greatest banjo player in the world and whom she later married. Their wedding caused a flurry in the local press, who enjoyed a field-day with the ‘banjo royal- ty’ theme.


Like Washburn, Fleck is no slouch when it comes to embracing music from elsewhere. His Grammy award winning Tales From The Acoustic Planet project has seen him collaborating with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Madagascar, as part of his exploration of the African origins of the banjo.


Fleck’s decision to take a year off from his hectic schedule in 2005 coincided with Washburn’s decision to leave Uncle Earl to form the Sparrow Quartet (two banjos, cello and violin) and tour China. He joined the


band and went with her, later producing first an EP, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet in 2006, and later the group’s semi- nal 2008 album release of the same name. Her seemingly effortless singing melds with the through-composed Chinese-inspired music and the virtuosic playing to create a unique and captivating sound world. She sings in Mandarin as well as English on this, as she does on her first solo album, much to the chagrin of her record company who were keen for her not to.


But she thinks that to not sing in Man- darin when it makes sense for her to do so, would be dishonest and deny who she is. Far from alienating Western audiences, she believes it attracts them, appealing to people who might be “intellectual about music and are inspired by things that are different and unconventional”. Not that you have to be intellectual to get into the unexpected fun of a sing-along in Man- darin at one of her live shows.


After the horrific 2008 earthquake in


China, Washburn went over to help out, teaching in re-location schools. This led to her doing shows there and swapping songs with the children. “There was one little girl who told me, ‘My mother has gone, but this is the song she used to sing to comfort me. Please take it with you and share it with everyone.’”


This gave rise to her idea to put together an album to raise money for the relief fund. She got together with David Liang from the Shanghai Restoration Pro- ject and Afterquake was released on the anniversary of the earthquake in 2009, featuring samples of children’s voices and sounds from the disaster area mixed with electronic backing.


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