Joshua Black Wilkins
There aren’t a heck of a lot of professional clawhammer-style banjo players who have been awarded TED fellowships. By our count, for that matter, it’s just one: Abigail Washburn.
There she was in February at the innovation conference in Long Beach, giving her stipulated four-minute fellow lecture and a performance. She joined a 2012 class of honorees that included a molecular biologist, a space archaeologist, a blue whale scientist and, a bit frighteningly, a “DIY neuroscientist” -- none of whom, presumably, gave performances.
It was a mind-expanding experience.
“That had a real impact on me,” says Washburn, who will bring that banjo to the Getty Center for a concert on Saturday. “The best thing that happened with TED so far is it let me take my own dreams more seriously. Before, I felt I was running around with these crazy ideas and making them happen in little ways. Meeting people at TED and seeing the potential resources made me think I can have a grandiose vision. We’ll see. I always had big thoughts, but the only actions I could take were baby steps.”
Well, that may be relative. Let’s look at a few of her “baby steps”:
- An Illinois native raised in D.C. and Minnesota, Washburn was an Eastern Asia studies major at Colorado College and moved to Beijing after graduating, young adult, studying to become a financial lawyer. But entranced by Chinese folk, she was inspired to go back to the U.S. and learn her own country’s music, hence learning to play the banjo -- that roundabout journey being the topic of her TED talk.
- After playing in female bluegrass band Uncle Earl (including on an album produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones) and recording a folky solo album (which included two songs sung in Mandarin), she formed the Sparrow Quartet with fellow banjoist Béla Fleck (now her hubby), cello player Ben Sollee and violinist Casey Driessen to create a unique and bracing Chinese-bluegrass-chamber group. Audiences in China (including at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing) but also relatively rural areas were as astounded by this as audiences in the U.S. (including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival).
- Following the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, she headed to Western China on a humanitarian mission, and while there recorded voices of the survivors that with electronic music specialist David Liang turned into the benefit EP Afterquake. (See video at bottom.)
- In 2011, after making a more singer-songwriter-ish album, City of Refuge, she returned to China for her "Silk Road Tour" collaborating with Chinese artists, including at many stops in places where western bands had never played, all documented in a series of videos, starting with this first one shot in Inner Mongolia:
This would be a good place to mention that as we talk to her for this story she is calling from the wild bush of rural Australia -- hanging out with kangaroo and exotic birds along the Murray River while taking a couple days of “rest” between the end of a Down Under concert tour and the Getty start of a U.S. swing.
The Getty appearance will be a good chance to see her ideas at work while they’re still small enough that they can fit into one show. She’ll be performing in the very flexible format of a duo with just her and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch, with whom she’s been touring of late (including an opening slot for the Jayhawks at Hollywood’s Avalon club recently). They’ll be covering ground from bluegrass to Chinese folk to songs from Washburn’s most recent album, the distinctive singer-songwriter set “City of Refuge.”
“We figured out ways to use drones and minimalist loops and things,” she says. “Nothing too shocking, but giving a basic bed of sound to things that would be hard to pull off without a full band, like a Chinese folk song with drone and me hitting a kick drum and Kai playing a horn.”
And then it’s on to those big thoughts. One is plans to make a record by Wu Force, the trio she, Welch and Beijing musician Wu Fei, master of the 21-string Chinese harp the gujung.
“She’s one of my best friends in Beijing,” Washburn says. “The three of us are writing songs, half English and half Chinese. That little band is looking for a fourth member before we take ourselves too far. Think we need somebody like a really great electronic artist. Still feeling that out. But every time I hear it it makes me smile.”
Can’t wait to see what her big thoughts will look like. Or sound like.