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Musician bridges American heartland, Silk Road

By Jian Ping in Chicago | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-05-09 11:14

Abigail Washburn can play folk music in two different countries and languages.

The banjo player and Grammy Award-winner is coming to Chicago for a performance at the Symphony Center on Friday.

She has toured much of the Silk Road in China, performing American and Chinese folk songs to Chinese audiences before, and now, along with her Appalachian music, she is bringing some Chinese folk songs to the American heartland.

"Music renders people's hearts and connects people in profound ways," Washburn said.

Washburn began learning Mandarin Chinese when she was in college in 1995 and takes pride in promoting cross-cultural understanding between China and the US.

Musician bridges American heartland, Silk Road

Banjo player Abigail Washburn and her husband Bela Fleck. Provided to China Daily

The experience of learning Chinese exposed her to the ancient culture and different ethnic groups in China, Washburn said.

Washburn has lived in China, and in 2008, was a teacher of American folk music at Sichuan University.

In her search for traditional American culture to share with her Chinese friends, she came across the Appalachian music and the banjo.

"Appalachian music traces way back to Scotland and Ireland," she said.

She found a common ground to connect peoples in the two countries.

She learned to play banjo and attributed her success in music to her learning of Chinese.

"For four years when I was learning Chinese, I was repeating syllables and tones. That really helped me to be a musician," Washburn said. "I mean that's what we do in music."

Armed with her banjo and American folk songs, Washburn began to perform in China in 2003 and would go there once or twice a year ever after.

In 2011, with a grant from the US embassy in Beijing, she embarked on a tour with a band that would cover Lanzhou, Hohhot, Urumqi and Lhasa.

"I felt in a sense married to China," Washburn said, laughing.

During the tour, Washburn played at many schools and public venues, many times with local musicians from different ethnic backgrounds on the same stage.

"I probably have done a thousand shows, it's rare that I don't do something in Chinese or sing a Chinese folk song," she said.

"It's really special to see the reaction of the audience to the Chinese material. They really love it. A lot of them don't speak Chinese, and maybe don't even know much about China," she continued, finishing her sentence with the humming of a Chinese song.

Washburn had started performing on the Silk Road before the Belt and Road Initiative, a multinational economic and cultural collaboration along the old Silk Road and beyond, was created by President Xi Jinping in 2013.

"I'd love to be part of the One Belt and One Road initiative," she said.

At the performance in Chicago, Washburn will be joined by her husband, banjo player Bela Fleck, and they will play bluegrass music. The concert will feature selections from their album that won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album.

"Of course I'll sing a Chinese song," Washburn said.

"Tai Yang Chu Lai Xi Yang Yang," she said was the song, in fluent Chinese.

Upon request, she said the title in English: "The sun has come out, and we are so happy."

For China Daily

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