It certainly sounds impossible. Yet, Abigail Washburn, described by TED as ” a singing, songwriting, Chinese-speaking, Illinois-born, Nashville-based, clawhammer banjo player”, has been on her way to accomplish it. I personally was amazed at how Washburn was able to deliver such inspirational messages over just a 6 minute and 30 second TED talk.
Washburn’s story started with her plan of going to China to study law to improve the US-China relations. Her life story took a complete turn when she first heard the song “Shady Grove” played on a banjo; she became obsessed with the its sound and decided she’d bring the banjo to China. But before that, she travelled across the US and ended up being invited to Nashville to make a record. No more law school, and Washburn started writing songs, both in English and Chinese. Believing in the power of music to connect hears and culture, Washburn told a touching story of her experience in Sichuan Province, where a little Chinese girl who lost her mother in the earthquake asked to sing Washburn a song that her mother used to sing to her.
Would cross cultural musicians like Washburn be able to really help better the US-China relations? I highly doubt it. In fact, Washburn and her talk had pretty much nothing to do with US-China relations. What I found interesting is that upon hearing her stories, I couldn’t help but think of how our modern culture has been opted into defining music as some kind of “industry” in which artists are money-making machines. Most of the popular music industry still evolves around superficial performers singing about shallow subjects made by a team of professionals, accompanied by repetitive dance beats and generic lyrics. I’m definitely not saying it’s wrong; in fact, I do have tons of songs like that in my iPod and I admit they are very entertaining and easy to listen to. Has popular music always been this way and is only becoming worse now? I do believe so, since the mainstream appreciates things that are safe and easy to digest. But maybe, it is music like these that has made us gradually forget that art and music can serve much more meaningful purposes, like connecting people on a much deeper level or overcoming cultural boundaries. It is not about being able to sell and make money; it is about being human and sharing experiences and life stories in a compassionate way, with music as our shared language. Lady gaga is fun and pure entertainment for me; but I’ll probably call Washburn’s music entertainment with message.
Anyway, since my summary of her story is really boring, here is the video.