Building US-China Relations by Banjo

Back in February, TED featured a talk by Abigail Washburn, a sinophile and musician (in that successive order) with a unique method for fostering healthy international relations. In the TED Talk, Washburn tells the story of how Doc Watson’s rendition of an American folk song diverted a longtime academic obsession with Chinese culture and policy towards a career as a Bluegrass musician, and how she combines her art and passion to promote cultural understanding:

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Abigail Washburn, now the wife of banjo virtuoso and eclectic musical fusionist Béla Fleck, has toured extensively and recorded prolifically as a solo artist and with her two bands. In late 2011, Washburn and her band The Village toured the Silk Road from Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang. Below is a clip from their time in Yinchuan, Ningxia province. Click through for more documentation of the tour.

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The theme of NPR’s TED Radio Hour today was inspiration and creativity, and they invited the “Chinese-speaking, banjo-picking girl” to talk about her experiences. In the interview, she tells more of her story, sings a few songs, explains how Chinese culture influences her music, and breaks down some of her Chinese lyrics. Transcribed from the NPR interview:

STEWART: What was it that made you feel so connected with China and Chinese culture that you thought, you know what, I am going to incorporate this into my music?

WASBURN: Well, for me, that’s simple. It was that China came first. China had a few years on folk music. So as soon as I started playing music, you know, as soon as that record executive walked up to me and offered me a record deal and I started becoming a professional musician, my first song I wrote was in English and my second one was literally in Chinese. It went…

(Singing in Chinese) [门外有个世界,心中有个声音,四方等你来啊,游女,游女]

And that means [门外有个世界], outside your door the world is waiting. [心中有个声音], inside your heart a voice is calling. [四方等你来啊], the four corners of the world are waiting. [游女,游女], so go get it, girl. Travel, daughter, travel.

So, for me, my creative inspiration was also in Chinese.

For a full set of Abigail Washburn’s music and a Chinese language synopsis of the artist, see Abigail Washburn: 歌唱在纳什维尔和北京之间 [Singing Between Nashville and Beijing] from Ourfolk.net.

Also see prior CDT coverage of the bilingual bluegrass musician.