Abigail Washburn started the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) The Luminosity Factor: Enlightenment Through The Arts Sunday morning plenary session with an incandescent performance and accompanying remarks relating to her extraordinary career experiences.
The globally-minded old-time clawhammer banjo stylist, who has further distinguished her work by combining American and Chinese folk music, sang a cappella the Appalachian folk hymn “Bright Morning Stars,” then a Chinese song that she said was even older, but with the same ancestral themes.
"I believe in the old, because it shows us where we come from—where our souls have risen from,” she said. “And I believe in the new, because it gives us the opportunity to create who we are becoming.”
And, added Washburn, who scrapped her intention of practicing law in China and embarked on a music journey that has since taken her there on concert tours 14 times, “I believe in music because it has the power of change.”
She related how she was well on her way to meeting her goal of lawyering in China when she heard Doc Watson’s classic recording of “Shady Grove” at a party.
“I thought it was really beautiful and bought a banjo and went to bluegrass festivals before leaving for China for good, and then got picked up by a record label in 2003 when they heard the only four songs I knew,” she said.
She performed the second song she wrote, which she said derived from reading an Eighth Century Chinese poem while listening to an Appalachian fiddle tune. She likewise noted how she wrote the titletrack for her 2011 album City Of Refuge under the influence of gospel blues legend Blind Willie Johnson’s “I’m Gonna Run From The City Of Refuge.”
Crossing cultures, Washburn said, requires engaging audiences in the personal and “being playful.”
“I try to keep it personal,” she said. “I loved being pregnant on the road, because everyone in all cultures can relate to it. I joked about not being able to see my feet, then sat down during the show—because I was eight months pregnant—and said, ‘I apologize if you’re seeing things you don’t want to see right now!’”
She also noted how when she started out, she was “deathly afraid” of being on stage.
“You have to try things you’re really afraid of,” said Washburn, “even if you pee yourself a little bit.”
Also addressing the Luminosity Factor—and both laugh-out-loud funny--were How To Be Black author and comedian Baratunde Thurston and theater artist Taylor Mac.
“In performance art there is no failure,” submitted Mac, who performs in spectacularly outrageous makeup and costume, but appeared au naturel, he joked, so as not to scare off the early Sunday morning assembly.
“Everything you feel is appropriate!” he said. “Hate me. Love me. I do ritual sacrifice: I do the ritual and you are the sacrifice!”
Thurston said that “people like to see themselves reflected.”
He recalled speaking at a surfer convention.
“I’d never surfed before, so I got out the day before and fell off the board--so I made it into a ‘we thing,’” he said, “where people can see themselves in what’s happening. They see themselves differently through humor.”
Mac suggested that his job is “to remind people of what they’ve forgotten, dismissed or buried.” Speaking of himself in performance, he said, “They see the oddest-looking person in the world, and it makes them relate.”
Here Washburn noted that when she stands in front of a big Chinese audience and sings in Chinese “and look the way I do, they’re always surprised.”
“They say, ‘Wow! She actually cares enough to learn our culture and songs. Maybe Americans care.’”
But when she plays a bluegrass festival in the U.S. “and I bust out a song in Chinese, people go, ‘What the hell?,’” she added, affecting a southern drawl.
It means, she concluded, “I’ve done my job! And then they come up and say, ‘Thank you very much!’”
The session was moderated by author/reporter Farai Chideya.
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