Thursday, September 25, 2008

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck: the banjo

When my wife and I had returned from a performing visit to the Peoples' Republic of China last October, the new VOA Beijing Bureau Chief, Stephanie Ho, brought me a recording of American folksinger Abigail Washburn, who had included a song in Mandarin, inspired by a poem by Meng Jiao (751-814 AD) on the album. It was refreshing to hear her style of playing the five-string banjo--an instrument I'd played at a semi-professional level in college, and while noting the Chinese connection, I set the CD aside, after being very pleased with the delicacy and sensitivity of her playing.

Now, it will be my good fortune to hear Ms. Washburn performing tomorrow night at the splendid Strathmore Auditorium (where the subject of my last post, the National Heritage Fellows concert, was held) with her ensemble, the Sparrow Quartet, which includes Bela Fleck, perhaps the pre-eminent performer of the five-string banjo. I'll be meeting the group tomorrow before the performance, and hope to be able to report on that meeting here.

As a preview to my coverage of that concert, I'd like to focus for a moment to the banjo--the instrument, which has its origins in Africa, is a mainstay of American folk music, with several distinct styles. Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the banjo is its metallic sound, created by the reverberations of a skin head stretched over a metal frame in the fashion of a drum.

The greatest living American folksinger, Pete Seeger (mentioned in a previous blog on censorship and music) brought the five-string banjo to the fore of the folk music revival in the 1950's and 1960s, and the great tradition of American bluegrass music features the distinctive three-finger style of picking the five-string banjo pioneered by Earl Scruggs.

Abigail Washburn plays in a gentle style which often identified as "clawhammer", but which I knew as "frailing," which essentially involves a downward strumming of the strings alternated with a striking by the thumb on the drone string. (For an interesting technical discussion of the differences, see a Web entry by Donald Zepp.) Bela Fleck, on the other hand, plays in a highly complicated plucking style--derived from but going far beyond the distinctive Scruggs technique--that over the course of his career has defined new possibilities of musical expression for the banjo.

As heard on the Sparrow Quartet's debut CD, the blend between Abigail's banjo playing and that of Bela Fleck is exquisite, with their plucking and strumming supplemented by the rich, deep-voiced bowing of Ben Sollee's cello, and the higher but equally captivating bowings of Casey Driessen's five-string bluegrass fiddle (violin). The creativity of this unique ensemble creates a very effective innovative fusion between folk music and chamber music (of which the string quartet is the fundamental ensemble.) The Sparrow Quartet itself reflects the sorts of diversification and blending of genres that is occurring frequently in the musical world, and I'll be writing further on this group, with a particular emphasis on their recent experiences in China, which they toured during the period of the Olympics.

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