Abigail Washburn Strings China and America Together With Her Banjo


Rebecca Ou & Lena Garcia

With her curly brown hair and electric smile, Abigail Washburn sat in front of an audience teeming with sinophile students, professors, and music enthusiasts. To her left and right were University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Michael Berry, a dedicated scholar in Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies, and University of California, Irvine Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a soft-spoken yet enthusiastic scholar in Chinese History and guitarist on his own time.

Hosted by the MultiCultural Center and the UCSB Department of East Asian Studies, Washburn spoke with the professors on Wednesday, May 7, in a Meet-the Artist Conversation about her time in China, the influence of the country on her unique style of music, and her experiences playing the banjo. Washburn performed alongside her husband and renowned banjo player, Bela Fleck, later that evening at Campbell Hall.

Washburn, originally from Tennessee, has spent a large portion of her adult life studying Chinese culture, and has toured there extensively. Her interest in Chinese culture has inspired her to create new music for her listeners. She translates, plays, and sings traditional Chinese songs on the banjo, blending together sounds from the East and the West.

“Usually I perform at bluegrass festivals where people are standing with their Pabst beers and Coors Lights, or sitting in their fold-out chairs, and I start singing in Chinese and they’re like ‘what the…’,” said Washburn.

She recalled with passion the inciting moment that brought her to China. She was waiting in line at her college cafeteria and the poster “Study Chinese in China” caught her eye. And so, like the beginning of many journeys, it was by adventurous spirit and openness of mind that Washburn discovered both of her passions: Chinese culture and, of course, playing the banjo. While traveling in China, she heard a recording of American banjoist Doc Watson and spontaneously decided she would buy a banjo and learn to play.

She shared images of her travels in rural China and Tibet, some as early as the mid-1990s, as though she were among old friends. She spoke fondly of her mentor, Ma Lao, who welcomed Washburn into her home and taught her how to prepare delicious dumplings.

Washburn has had the rare chance to perform her music in Tibet, and she, along with “The Sparrow Quartet,” became the first American act tour there. She talked about the purpose of her music, and how she intends for it to veer away from hard politics and toward forming a connection between the two drastically different cultures.

“My main motivation is to communicate,” she said. “I need to be saying something that someone wants to hear, needs to hear.”

Washburn expressed the fine line between making a pointed political statement and creating the type of art that she does. She explained that in terms of negotiating her role in China, she tries to avoid making strong political statements that subtract from the beauty of the music.

Although she respects artists such as Björk, who once yelled, “Free Tibet!” onstage in China, she said that’s not her strategy for activism in East Asian countries. Washburn said she wants to connect with people through music before engaging in dialogue about improving Chinese and U.S. relations, ideally over food and in an atmosphere conducive to heartfelt communication.

“I’m targeting the heart,” she said. “I don’t want the mind to get in the way of the arrow hitting the heart, so I try not the stir up the mind.”

Additionally, Washburn is part of a band called “The Wu Force,” which is a collaboration between herself and two other artists, Kai Welch and Wu Fei; they combine banjo and other folk rock instruments with traditional Chinese instruments. She played some of it for the audience, and admitted that it is very different and weird. National Public Radio, she said, described them as “loopy.”

“We’re having fun with these very intense differences between cultures,” she commented after she played the audience a short demo of a song that incorporated both Chinese and English.

Washburn hopes that her music will bridge Chinese and American cultures together, while temporarily setting aside the politics of it all.

“There’s a striving for progress that makes the economic and political engines really loud,” she explained, talking about Chinese-American relations. However, she emphasized that this did not mean ignoring problems.

Performing a song on the banjo, sung beautifully in both Chinese and English, she gave the audience a taste of the harmony that can exist when two rich cultures are brought together.

After her performance, she said, “Culture and arts needs to be the louder part about what our future–global future–is.”