Banjos Without Borders

Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet plead no contest to allegations of international trafficking of music traditions

The people and governments of the United States and China have finally found something they can agree upon: Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet. With the full support of both governments, and even financial backing from the United States, this ensemble has played to enthusiastic audiences throughout mainland China and even Tibet.

The surprise is that Washburn and her fellow Sparrows are not a curatorial novelty act. They weren't heard by diplomats at the Folklife Festival and crated up for export. Washburn studied in China, speaks fluent Mandarin, and still divides her time between America and China, most often in and around Beijing. The group's self-titled recording, which they are now touring to support, features traditional and original songs sung in Chinese by Washburn. And though Washburn's credits on the disc list banjos and ukuleles, she lays hands upon those instruments in such a way that they certainly evoke, if not emulate, the traditional Chinese pipa. The vibe wafts back and forth, hypnotically, from Yangtze to Yanqui.

Washburn answers her phone as "Abby." As if to make clear the fact that she is favored by powers beyond our comprehension, she answers her phone in Seattle, Wash., rain capital of the Northern Hemisphere, and the sun is shining. She attempts to neither defend nor explain why her old-timey banjo playing doesn't sound like most other that you've heard. But she appears to be aware of the fact.

"I'm a participant in the old-time community," says Washburn, who is also on record and still involved with the all-female ensemble Uncle Earle. "I came to the banjo as a foreigner. I went into it because I love the tradition. But I'm not here to hold it to that tradition.

"I usually think I'm playing the way somebody taught me. It's more out of ignorance, if it sounds different. I've individualized it somewhat, but that's part of the folk tradition."

Another part of the folk tradition is collaboration among virtuosos. The Sparrow Quartet takes that to a new high-water mark. Along with Washburn's warble and banjo you'll hear cellist Ben Sollee, fiddler Casey Driessen, and Béla Fleck, the banjo's answer to Paganini. It works, to put it mildly. There is clearly a great deal of mutual respect and shared inspiration among the group. They are all hotshots. But the few times that you do sense a little straining at the bridle, it's less to break free than it is to pull a colleague further forward.

"The guys have been incredible collaborators," says Washburn. "I brought most of the ideas, and they would either finish them or compose with me. The challenge was, both musically and technically, to create music that would interest these guys and that we could all stand to play almost every day for a year.

"It evolves from something pure and raw to something cultivated. These guys can transform a song from something that's just plain rough, to a diamond in the rough. This virtuosic place is something new for me, but I think we're able to get there without losing the original reason for the songs, which is usually the singing."

Washburn has an unusual style of vocal presentation for someone so closely connected to traditional American music. In some places angelic and airy ("A Fuller Wine"), in others bluesy and urgent, a la Janis Joplin (the old gospel blues chestnut "Strange Things"), Washburn's voice is consistently pretty and accessible, but somehow exotic, even when she's singing in English. When she sings in Chinese ("Taiyang Chulai" or "Journey Home"), the effect is reversed, and she makes the distant unknowable seem familiar.

Believe it or not, that's all part of a larger plan. When Washburn discovered the banjo just a few years back, she was on track to begin law school at Beijing University. The goal was to join the decision-making process, centered around The Hague, that is attempting to help the world make sense of—or maybe just survive—globalization.

"When I was trying to get into law, my real goal was to be involved in a more comprehensive legal system," Washburn says. "We need to come up with a new concept of how to govern ourselves, a way that embraces and deals with cultures instead of nation-states.

"Music came into my life just as I was trying to find a way to do all that. I really do believe that the greater need and impact is cultural and emotional, as opposed to political. If the people don't understand, what's the point?"

Washburn says that she had never intended for the banjo to replace the judge's bench that was part of her original scheme. But she's convinced that what she's doing now is capable of opening people up to the positive prospect of the sorts of change that she still considers necessary.

"I'm not an activist," she says, "I'm an artist. This music embodies the ideals that I have for my art and the world."