[22 July 2009]
One year after the great earthquake, the people of China’s Sichuan province continue to rebuild their homes and communities. With nearly 80 thousand dead, and five million relocated, China will be spending more than 100 billion dollars over the next several years in the reconstruction effort. Yet, despite the immensity of project, there has been relatively little coverage in western media of the disaster’s continued reverberations – partially because of our own domestic problems, but also because of heavy censorship by the Chinese government.
In attempt to bring attention to Sichuan and aid the relief effort, two American artists, Abigail Washburn and David Liang, traveled to the region to document the affected people, producing an electronic EP, Afterquake based around the recordings they collected. A portion of the proceeds for the disc goes to Sichuan Quake Relief.
A member of the all-female Americana outfit Uncle Earl, banjo-picker Abigail Washburn, has surprisingly deep ties with China. After developing an interest in traditional Chinese music as an exchange student in the 90s, she resolved to learn more about American folk music, eventually taking up the banjo. She has toured Tibet with the Sparrow Quartet (featuring Béla Fleck) under a grant from the United States government, and frequently synthesizes American and Chinese music in her live shows and recordings. She contacted producer David Liang (who records as the Shanghai Restoration Project) to help with the Afterquake project after hearing the stories of displaced students on a tour of temporary schools soon after the earthquake.
The EP they have crafted features the songs, poetry, and playground chants of displaced students over electronic beds of rhythmic samples and synthesizers. Sonically and conceptually, it is reminiscent of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 found-sound collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, minus all the art-school pretensions. The fashionable pan-culturalism of the foreign chants also call to mind M.I.A., without the dubious political affiliation, as the EP is staunchly apolitical in accordance with the Chinese censors.
The CD fittingly begins with the haunting “Quake” in which layers of samples of children mimicking the sound of the terrible quake layer and build towards an inevitable, sudden climax. An acute reminder of the awful reality of the earthquake itself, “Quake” is one of the few dark records on an EP that attempts, above all else, to celebrate the tenacious vivacity of the human sprit in the face of hardship. The next track, “Tibetan Wish”, hammers this point home. Over exotic percussion, two sisters chant/sing a childhood lullaby, a wish for the wellbeing of mankind, the disc’s most insistently catchy tracks.
This theme of persistence is developed throughout Afterquake. On “Dream Seek”, over a quiet storm groove, a girl recites a portion of a poem detailing the imminent realization of her dreams. “Chinese Recess” uses myriad playground chants and hollers to produce a composite sketch of a bustling schoolyard, a tribute to the surviving youth, and to the memory of the thousands who died in unstable schools when the earthquake hit.
While never overt, these moments of quiet subversion culminate in the EP’s penultimate track, “Song for Mama”. Over rhythmic samples of his family rebuilding his home hours away from his temporary school, a Chinese teenager sings an intensely emotional ballad, expressing his longing for his absent mother. His sense of loss and yearning is balanced by the sounds of reconstruction, painting an affecting picture of the Sichuan province –allowed to be captured by the unwitting censors. His voice conveying more hurt, more truth than any reporter ever could.