Abigail Washburn’s story is a great one for understanding why students should learn more about China. Ms. Washburn was an Asian Studies major at Colorado College who first visited China in 1996; as an undergraduate, she had planned to be a lawyer. While in China, however, she re-discovered her own American roots (a common experience among people immersed in a different culture):
As an Asian Studies major at Colorado College, Abigail Washburn never set out to be a songwriter or a recording artist. Five years ago when she found herself on stage in a smoke-filled Beijing club playing her banjo and singing old-time Appalachian mountain music in Chinese to a packed house, she was as surprised as anyone. Together with bluegrass banjo master Béla Fleck, acclaimed cellist Ben Sollee, and Grammy-nominated fiddler Casey Driessen, Washburn has developed a truly unique musical style that combines American roots music and Chinese folk songs. (From Colorado College; also see her official website’s biography)
Since then, Ms. Washburn has become a noted musician, one who continues to explore her interest in China while pursuing her own musical career. (Hear her explain her use of Chinese lyrics with American roots). More recently, Ms. Washburn teamed up with the Shanghai Restoration Project (another musical group) to produce an album called Afterquake.
In December 2008, Abigail served as a resident teacher at the Sichuan University Art School teaching traditional US music. In the hours after school was finished, she volunteered for Sichuan Quake Relief performing at earthquake relocation schools. The experience with the students and teachers after the performances left her wanting to do something to help.
In early March, 2009, Abigail had the idea to create Afterquake, a benefit EP in memory of the May 12, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which left more than 5 million people homeless and hundreds of thousands dead. Abigail and The Shanghai Restoration Project united again to go to Sichuan Province, to the relocation schools and into the disaster zone to capture the voices of those affected by the earthquake and sample sounds from the schools and the disaster zone. They sampled, recorded and produced Afterquake in two and a half weeks in Sichuan province. The final result is a beautiful, timeless, intelligent and accessible musical document that blends folk and electronic sounds with post-earthquake samples. A portion of all proceeds will go to the Sichuan Quake Relief organization. (From her official biography)
Her story is truly inspiring; after hearing an NPR story on Afterquake, I went home and immediately bought the album (listen to the NPR story). From Ms. Washburn’s experiences, there are untold benefits to studying abroad in China, majoring in Asian Studies at a liberal arts college, and pursuing your passions. Or as she puts it: “I had no intention of becoming a performer and yet under miraculous circumstances I was brought into the music industry fold,” says Abigail. “If divine powers hadn’t interfered I’d still be living in China working in some area of Sino-American comparative law.” (from China Digital Times).