“The Power of Music to Connect Cultures”: Abigail Washburn


Photo by Steve Jurvetson (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/6976736114)

“The light that shone off her eyes was a place I could have stayed forever. In that moment we weren’t our American selves. We weren’t our Chinese selves. We were just mortals sitting together in that light that keeps us here. I want to dwell in that light with you and with everyone, and I know U.S./China relations doesn’t need another lawyer.”

Abigail Washburn, American banjo player

Abigail Washburn on Building US-China relations … by banjo

I’ve gotta say “Wow!” to this TED Talk with Abigail Washburn. Maybe you’ll find yourself  moved as deeply as I was. Abigail speaks about being in Sichuan province just after the devastating earthquake in May 2008. A little girl asked if she could sing Abigail the song her momma had taught her before being “swallowed up in the earthquake.”

Three and a half months after that earthquake, I was back in China to study Mandarin at a university in the north-east (about 3000 km from the devastation). One evening on campus I went to a performance by a visiting dance troupe. I’ll never forget their interpretive dance tribute to the victims of that disaster. Their movements along with the accompanying music had me in tears.

I marvel at the creativity of the human spirit in response to life’s events. Artistic expression, music and dance being but two forms, speaks a universal language capable of uniting the hearts of people everywhere, no matter what the political “divide.” It’s the understanding of the heart that can save us. It’s not the distinct lack of understanding of the ego … a story I don’t want to talk about.

Abigail Washburn in China, “Afterquake: ‘Little Birdie’ Field Recording”

I love this song with the kids–in both English and Mandarin!

Silk Road Tour 3 – Yinchuan – Abigail Washburn & The Village

The erhu, sometimes called the “Chinese violin,” has got to be one of my most favourite instruments ever. There’s something about its twang that drives me crazy in a good way! In this video in China, an awesome erhu player named Quan Lei performs with Abigail and her band. Listen to the special effects he achieves with this 2-stringed instrument. (And please see the erhu video in my PS below.)

Before saying zai jian 再见 (bye) for today, I want to thank Abigail Washburn for her big loving heart and for her wonderful use of the banjo to promote understanding and love between folks in the West and folks in China. I’m SO glad she gave up law!

Till next time,

Heart of Friendship Ramona


Music speaks a universal language, and some music can penetrate the hardest of hearts. I believe the piece that follows fits this category. “The Butterfly Lovers,” or Liang Zhu (梁祝), is based upon an ancient Chinese Romeo and Juliet story. In this version of “Butterfly Lovers,” the erhu is featured with the great musician Sun Huang (孙凰). The orchestra, by the way, is comprised mostly of traditional Chinese instruments. The videos’ long, but please listen for at least 2 1/2 minutes. If you make it to 4:20, then great! You will understand why.

Do you think this music has a poignant, heart-softening effect? What pieces of music touch your heart and soul?

Butterfly Lovers, Liang Zhu (梁祝)

About the Author:

Ramona McKean is creating a "Bridge of Light" (aka “a Bridge of the Heart”) to promote cross-cultural appreciation and awareness. An author and speaker, she lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.


  1. Maxwell Ivey July 5, 2014 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    i enjoyed the post but couldn’t find any links to the music. It sounded like me that the plan was for us to be able to listen to it as we read this. I went to youtube and subscribed to you but didn’t find them there either. and yes music can conquer fears cure ills heal pain and build bridges. take care, max

    • Ramona July 5, 2014 at 10:03 pm - Reply

      Hi Max,
      Oh my, I wonder what happened for you not to be able to play the music on this blog. I’ll send you links to the YouTube videos to watch and listen to. I sure hope you enjoy Abigail Washburn as much as I do! Please let me know how these videos make you feel, okay?

  2. Patricia Weber July 7, 2014 at 5:26 am - Reply

    What a great share. There is certainly something about bluegrass music. Or as you are saying, something about all music that connects us. Even when I hear Turkish music (where my husband have lived and visited many times) it touches my spirit. Thanks for this intriguing story.

    over from LinkedIn BHB

    • Ramona July 7, 2014 at 11:49 am - Reply

      Hi Patricia, I’ve not been exposed much to blue grass music but I think I know what you mean. As a child, I heard lots of old country and western, including Hank Williams Senior’s mournful tunes. His voice was not what I’d call pleasant, but there was something about his singing and his music that grabbed me deep inside. I can say the same about Leonard Cohen. “Take This Waltz” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” “do it” for me. Turkish music, yes, it too! Thanks for writing.

  3. Paul Graham July 7, 2014 at 6:08 am - Reply

    Hi Ramona. I doubt that anything has more power to connect cultures than music as the language is universal. You have provided 3 great examples. As you know, China will not consider itself a “Superpower” until its cultural achievements are as globally recognized as its economic power and there is a vast amount of excellence to be both exported and imported. I particularly like the visual aspect of the Chinese orchestra; in addition to the apparel, more attention is given to the “choreography” of the string players’ movements than we generally see in the west which gives an operatic or theatrical quality.

    • Ramona July 7, 2014 at 12:47 pm - Reply

      Hi Paul. I agree with you that “there is a vast amount of excellence to be both exported and imported.” Your comment on the visual quality of the Chinese orchestra reminds me of recitals I went to in China. “Choreography” is indeed an excellent word to use. Here’s another version of “Butterfly Lovers” that indeed involves elegant choreography of a different kind.
      Thanks for your reflections.

  4. Jacqueline July 7, 2014 at 6:31 am - Reply

    Loved all of the videos! What a wonderful and full heart Abigail has and I have always believed that music is a great connector. The last piece, Butterfly Lovers had me in tears…what a wonderful meditative piece.

    • Ramona July 7, 2014 at 12:43 pm - Reply

      I’m so glad you liked the videos, Jacqueline. Especially when she talks about China, Abigail glows. Yes what a big heart she has. Here’s another, very different version of “Butterfly Lovers” you might like to see. It leaves me in awe:
      I hope you like this one too. 🙂

  5. Beth Niebuhr July 7, 2014 at 7:02 am - Reply

    Music was my first love and although I no longer make my living with it, I can’t imagine a day without it. Symphony orchestra concerts are my top favorite and it was interesting to realize as I watched your Butterfly Lovers video that even though the instruments are mostly different, that the behavior of the orchestra is the same as I am used to. That structure helps reinforce the feeling that music binds us together, regardless of location. Thank you for sharing these beautiful examples.

    • Ramona July 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      What a beautiful observation, Beth, about the “unifying” behavior of the orchestra’s structure. I’d not considered that before. I appreciate your writing. 🙂

  6. Tim July 7, 2014 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    A great post not only because of the subject matter but mainly because of the use of the written word and music video in combination. Music is most definitely a universal language and always has been. I am reminded of the stories I have heard about the orchestra that made all its instruments out of trash or the orchestra that simply learned to play because it was hope they were trying to ignite in the people of their village. Beautiful post.

    • Ramona July 7, 2014 at 7:55 pm - Reply

      I am happy that you liked my combo of words and videos, Tim. Thank you for letting me know!

  7. William Butler July 7, 2014 at 9:26 pm - Reply

    Hi Ramona,
    I have loved music, playing, writing, and recording it. I wrote a new song this morning. 🙂
    The power of music is in its ability to unify hearts, even without words. It is the very thing that connects us all deeply at the most fundamental level. The light that Abigail Washburn speaks of us lives in each of us, even if it is just a spark.

    • Ramona July 7, 2014 at 11:13 pm - Reply

      Hi Bill,
      Care to share your new song? 😉 I agree with you wholeheartedly (what an awesome word that is). I actually have devoted a page to music on my website, most of it Chinese. Every song helped me to heal from a traumatic ordeal in China. Will you tell me what effect, if any, these Chinese songs have on you? http://ramonamckean.com/music/
      Many blessings to you too,

  8. crystal Ross (@CrystalRoss55) July 9, 2014 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Ramona, excellent post. I teared up at the end of Abigal Washburn’s Ted Talk. It was so beautiful and I love how she uses music for good. I am moving to Nashville Tennessee in three weeks and I thought that was so cool that she got a record deal. It was meant to be. All the music in the videos where beautiful and peaceful. I love all kinds of music. Johnny Cash. Blue grass and folk music. I love listening to movie soundtracks to. i love Claude Debussy, the song Clair De Lune. Music is wonderful and powerful. =)

    • Ramona July 9, 2014 at 2:35 pm - Reply

      Hi Crystal, thank you. I cry too when Abigail talks about being with the little girl who survived the earthquake. It sounds like you have diverse tastes in music, like me. 🙂 Ramona

  9. Welli July 9, 2014 at 7:31 am - Reply

    Hey Ramona I fully believe music does soften hearts. It is the only thing that can enter a person without their consent. You need only enter a shop playing a certain type of music to start humming to it, or at least hear the sound on your mind way after you left the shop. The power of music is immense and has often been tapped for good and for bad in terms of influencing people. Lovely post.

    • Ramona July 9, 2014 at 2:55 pm - Reply

      Hi Welli, you’re right about music’s use by some to influence people “for good or for bad.” (I vote for good!) Also about hearing music and it staying in your mind. One of the songs on my music page http://ramonamckean.com/music, “Laoshu Ai Da Mi”–I love you like a mouse loves rice 🙂 –brings back many positive memories. I mostly heard that song over and over again in merchants’ shops in Harbin, China. It stayed on my mind so much that I can still remember some of the lyrics. (At the time I didn’t know any Mandarin.) Thanks for sharing your views.

  10. Christina July 9, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

    I was amazed by the erhu and the sounds it produced with only two strings!

  11. Donna Janke July 9, 2014 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    Truly inspiring. What Abigail Washburn is doing is wonderful. I love her voice and her music. And her heart.

    • Ramona July 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm - Reply

      She inspires me as well. When words and music come from the heart, it’s usually pretty apparent to me. You too? 🙂

  12. Mina Joshi July 10, 2014 at 7:55 am - Reply

    I have always loved Asian music, their instruments and clothes. Loved all three videos. You are no right – music has no barriers.

    • Ramona July 10, 2014 at 3:07 pm - Reply

      Awesome, Mina. You’re right–no barriers with music. I’m so glad you liked the videos!

  13. Pamela Heady July 11, 2014 at 9:40 am - Reply

    I couldn’t agree with you more that music IS a universal language. The Butterfly Lovers video is absolutely fabulous. Not only are they a good looking orchestra – I love the bright color of the girls’ dresses, but to hear all of those native instruments was wonderful. Some of those I’ve never seen before! Must google Chinese instruments soon. I didn’t listen to the entire thing, but I did get about ten minutes in. I know of a singer-songwriter that has traveled to India all for the love of music and community. There are so many styles of music that speak to me in different ways. I am thankful that music has always been an important part of my life from choir in my school days to working in radio after college. Nothing has more of an impact on my mood like music does.

    • Ramona July 11, 2014 at 3:40 pm - Reply

      Pamela, music has a huge impact on my mood too. Do I want a happiness boost or a tear release? Music helps. I have googled Chinese traditional instruments and, gratefully, have been at performances by erhu and guzheng musicians. What are the words to describe the sound? Exquisite, sumptuous, evocative and, believe it or not, sexy. Where did that last one come from?! 😉 Now to experience the sound and look of other Chinese instruments first hand! I’m glad you liked the Butterfly Lovers. Take a boo at this amazing visual interpretation of the music? Thanks for writing.

  14. Dog August 2, 2015 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    The sounds of instruments playing certain notes in a particular sequence hits a spot in the brain that causes wonder and pleasure to ensue. I love it.

    • Ramona August 10, 2015 at 1:19 pm - Reply

      Thanks bunches. I love it too! 🙂

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