And every instrument shall have its own “O-Rama” …
For the past five years, Town Hall Seattle has hosted an “Accordi-O-Rama” as part of its Global Rhythms series. This year, series curator Brian Faker decided to switch the focus to the banjo.
The concert stars banjo-playing singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn, joined by local virtuosos Kane Mathis (on the kora, a West African banjo antecedent) and Mary Ohno (on the shamisen, Japan’s answer to the banjo).
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Washburn herself — who speaks fluent Chinese and was set to attend law school in Beijing before she chanced into the music business — will contribute some Chinese flavor to the global mix.
Washburn keeps up a busy tour schedule. She’ll be on the road with her celebrated banjoist husband, Béla Fleck, later this year. (No chance that he’ll make a surprise appearance at “Banj-O-Rama”: He has a gig with Chick Corea in Nashville that same night.)
Last week Washburn performed in Australia and New Zealand, where she fielded some questions by email, starting with a query about her first banjo encounter.
“I’m sure I heard the banjo as a child,” she says, “but I don’t remember it.”
The first time she started to register American traditional music — bluegrass, blues, jazz — was in college. She had a boyfriend who played mandolin in a bluegrass band, and she wound up as the band’s “merch girl” at their shows and festivals.
“One night,” she says, “somebody put on a record of Doc Watson, and I remember the song ‘Shady Grove’ coming on, and I was smitten. … To me it had a welcoming sound, a universal sound. That’s when I got the itch to buy a banjo and start learning old-time Appalachian music.”
The banjo, to her, is “the essence of folk tradition.” It has, she says, “a quality of openness and resonance, heritage and antiquity. … It belongs to no one, it belongs to everyone.”
Although she’s based in Nashville, Washburn has a slight local connection, thanks in part to a mountain-climbing course she took with Bellingham’s American Alpine Institute when she was 18.
“We climbed all over northern Washington for 10 days,” she says, “and I learned a lot about stinky guys and the courage to do things you can’t imagine being able to do … like climbing to the top of Mount Shuksan at 2 a.m. in the moonlight, or climbing a rock-wall face with only the tiniest of ledges to hang on. I think this is one of the main reasons I had the courage to dive into music, even when it didn’t seem like I was made of the stuff to do it. Between sheer luck, courage and an emerging mission to bridge U.S. and China with banjo music, I’ve ended up living a life I never could have imagined.”
She and Fleck, who are expecting a baby in June, have their work cut out coordinating their touring schedules. It was a tough choice, she says, opting to appear at “Banj-O-Rama” rather than see her husband and Corea play together in her hometown.
“But Banj-O-rama is a tantalizing name for a gal the likes of me!” she says. “Throw the shamisen and kora into the mix, and the decision was clear.”
For more on Washburn, including a full delightful account of her law student-to-banjoist transformation, go to www.abigailwashburn.com and look for her “TED Talk.”
By the way, Seattle banjo lovers should revel in this “Banj-O-Rama” while they can.
Next year “Harp-O-Rama” takes over.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org