Abigail Washburn & The Shanghai Restoration Project: Afterquake

Harry Burson

In the wake of an earthquake, American musicians travel to China's Sichuan region to craft an affecting EP of found sounds.

Abigail Washburn & The Shanghai Restoration Project


Label: Afterquake Music
US Release Date: 2009-05-12

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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.