Art Trumps Politics for Sparrow Quartet

Up close, in-depth, behind the scenes, Dan Ouellette has been covering the artistry of popular music for two and a half decades, ranging from the icons to the upstarts. He's written for Billboard, Stereophile and San Francisco Chronicle and is currently working on a biography of legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter.

If musician Abigail Washburn had a mantra, it would be peaceful engagement. Her source of inspiration? The Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet.

The proving ground of this guiding principal was her unlikely tour of Tibet in 2007 with her group, the Sparrow Quartet -- the first officially sanctioned cultural mission of an American band to the region, jointly sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the American Center for Educational Exchange, and approved by the powers that be in the People's Republic of China.

A collective comprised of Washburn on clawhammer banjo and vocals, jazz/pop/bluegrass banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee and violinist Casey Driessen, the one-of-a-kind ensemble delivers an otherworldly amalgam of Appalachian roots music and Chinese folkloric tunes.

So, what are her reflections on the groundbreaking Tibetan tour? "Well, frankly, it was depressing," said Washburn, whose second CD, simply titled "Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet" and produced by Fleck, hit streets on May 20, on Nettwerk Records.

"It was an honor to be invited, but it felt so sad and oppressed there," she said. "The palace was empty, like a tomb. There were guards in every corner, and the monks weren't smiling. I follow the Dalai Lama closely as a guide to my heart. When we were asked to go there, I immediately thought, what would he think? I'd been reading a lot of his writings, and the answer was clear: Go in a spirit of peaceful engagement."

Fleck said he, too, had mixed feelings about the trip.

"It was confusing to be in Tibet, but we never felt like we were supporting the Chinese government's policy by performing there," he said. "We didn't take any stands on issues, but just let the music speak for itself -- letting the music be the revolution. We took the approach that it was good for the people to see us be creative and free with our music versus some karaoke experience."

The reaction to the Sparrow flight into Tibetan territory? Both Washburn and Fleck agree that while the group was "handled" and "shielded" by Chinese authorities while there, the audiences -- handpicked Tibetan students -- responded enthusiastically, "especially," said Fleck, "when Abby spoke to them -- and then sang -- in Mandarin."

Born in Evanston, Ill., and raised in Maryland, Washburn decided to major in Asian studies in college, which led to a year living and studying in China. She was a quick study as far as learning the language and became fascinated with the country's cultural history.

"I did the backwards cultural thing," she says. "I went to China and decided when I returned home that I wanted to discover a part of America's cultural legacy that I could be proud of."

Her first stop was the banjo, which, she says, proved to be "an awesome connection to the American folk tradition." Washburn's obsession with China converged with her newfound obsession for the banjo, which led to her singular style of cross-cultural global music. However, the Sparrow egg took a long time to incubate. In fact, Washburn never dreamed of leading a band and playing onstage.

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