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.

During one consulting firm stint in China, with banjo in tow, Washburn gathered with friends after work to do karaoke. At the end of the evenings to break things up, she'd play an American folk song on the banjo. But that was the extent of her performance experience.

By 2004, Washburn decided to make the move semi-permanently to China. But first she decided to embark on a road trip that led to West Virginia and Kentucky where she learned new tricks from old hill country masters of the banjo. She then made her way to the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Nashville where she met some other female banjo pickers. As they jammed, an A&R scout from Sugarhill Records liked what he heard and asked them to cut a three-song demo.

While that band never jelled, the demo turned heads at Nettwerk, and, through mutual friends, Washburn hooked up with Fleck, who met her at a pickers' party. She gave him a copy of her latest tunes.

"I started listening to Abby's demo as I was driving and I kept going faster and faster," Fleck recalled. "I ended up getting pulled over for a ticket. But I kept thinking, is this as good as I think it is? I loved her songs, her voice, her mix of Chinese and American folk."

On a hiatus from his band the Flecktones, Fleck tagged along with Washburn for her second tour of China after her first solo CD in 2005, "Song of the Traveling Daughter," a bilingual disc highlighted by the title track sung in Mandarin. For the second CD, and first featuring the Sparrow Quartet as a distinct unit, Fleck said, "We fought for everything to be excellent and unusual, with a lot of detail to make all the songs be special and right."

The group's singular soundscape is steeped in a chamber music-meets-bluegrass sensibility and buoyed by artistically fashioned arrangements. Influences include lyrical Sichaun folk songs, American field recordings and work songs, Béla Bartok and Giacomo Puccini's experiments with music from the East, and a meld of American old-timey, revival gospel, grooved blues and mountain yodeling.

Even though she never planned on being a performer, Washburn says she's pleased that she's onstage now instead of working in some area of Sino-American comparative law, which was her original plan.

"It all goes back to when I was first offered a record deal," she said. "The big question was, what do I want to say? I can use my voice as a foreigner working in the Chinese market or use it as an artist who has something important to say on a cultural level.

"In one way, I had my nose to the ground to return to China," she continued. "I had passed my TOEFL exam so that I could get my masters in law at a Chinese university. But, as it turned out, I'm getting to be a part of China in another way, by, like the Dalai Lama said, attempting to be engaged with a spirit of peace."

That attitude has been a guiding light in recent times, what with the clampdowns in Tibet and subsequent international protests, and then the catastrophic earthquake in Sichaun province, where Washburn has close friends in the capital city of Chengdu, all of whom she reports are safe.

Washburn's next chapter of art trumping politics will come this summer when she and the Sparrow Quartet perform at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, which is already teeming with international controversy manifested by the protest-plagued torch relay.

Given her penchant for all things Sino, Washburn acts surprised when told that, beyond the obvious Chinese songs sung in Mandarin on her new album, there seems to be a Chinese flavor to all her music. Even Fleck senses it.

"Abby is so engaged with Chinese culture that it just ends up being in the sound," he said. "It happens naturally, which is really at the heart of the Sparrow Quartet. The Chinese inflections are there without intention."

"I guess it all has to do with being so in tune with and aware of the Chinese music aesthetic," Washburn said. "I never consciously thought of trying to bring the two cultures together." She laughed, then added, "I guess it's because I became partly Chinese before I ever thought about being a musician."

Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet will perform close to 30 dates this spring and summer, including a free show at Castle Clinton in New York's Battery Park on May 29, and other marquee dates, such as the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., on June 14, and Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., on June 25 (tour information available at