The banjo is one of the most American of instruments, a staple of bluegrass and folk. But it’s actually African in origin, and it can cut across many categories of music, no matter the genre.
That is if the Nashville-based Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn have anything to say about it. And they do — plenty.
“My particular mission is to find places for the banjo where it hasn’t been before,” said Fleck, who with his wife, Washburn, will perform on various types of banjos at their Irvine Barclay Theatre debut Dec. 7.
“We’ll show the banjo in its more familiar settings — white and Southern [bluegrass], which is what most people still think of — but also its West African roots, early jazz and blues, even classical music [crossover],” he said.
Fleck has written three banjo concertos to date.
“It’s an ancient instrument because of its African roots and certainly a beautiful representation of Americanism in its immigrant melding and ability to create a new identity for itself,” said Washburn, who used to live in China and made a name for herself playing Chinese bluegrass. “I was so immersed in another culture, I thought it was time I immersed myself in my own [American] culture. Heard Doc Watson playing the banjo, sounding so American and timeless, so I bought a banjo and played it while living in China.”
“There’s something visceral about the banjo,” continued Fleck, who first heard the banjo played by Earl Scruggs on “The Beverly Hillbillies” when he was 5 but didn't get his first banjo until 15. “It plays crisp, cool notes, has the ability for one to play at an effortless speed, and produces a rich, funky, old-fashioned sound at once high-tech and primitive. It’s multiracial, and played a big part in the birth of jazz and the blues.”
Fleck and Washburn have performed as a duo for 5½ years, just after their eldest son, Juno, was born. They took some six months off to accommodate the June birth of their second son, Theodore. But they are more than ready to tour again as a duo: she an old-school Appalachian, Earl Scruggs-type player, he a technical, three-fingered player.
“We complete each other,” Fleck said of the duo, whose first, self-named album won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album — his 14th, her first. “Abby is a marvelous vocalist, and I’m not. I’m more technical and a virtuoso, while she’s the heartbeat of a song. She’s a great lyricist, and I’m good at tune-writing. And while we have our ups and downs, we do eventually find the right consensus.”
Washburn put it more succinctly, if a bit humorously: “It’s because Béla does anything I tell him to do.”
Both Fleck — full name, Béla Anton Leoš Fleck (after the iconic 20th-century composers Béla Bartók, Anton Webern, and Leoš Janáček, respectively) — and Washburn will perform selections from their Grammy-winning album, their second and third albums as a duo (“Banjo, Banjo,” “Echo in the Valley”) and more.
Their Irvine concert is the second of a seven-city December tour that resumes after the holidays. Fleck will also be reviving his Grammy-winning group, the Flecktones, and preparing more recordings.
“Most of our work during the season will be predominantly as a duo,” said Washburn.
“But we’ve also got a pile of things to get to,” Fleck said, “such as producing an album combining Argentinian folk with Appalachian bluegrass, and I've got some new compositions I’m working on.”
Meanwhile, both are looking forward to returning to Irvine — they played for the campus’ Chinese New Year's celebration a few years ago — and bringing all their various banjos with them.
Well, all except one: the bass banjo, which is larger than a classical double-bass.
“We’d need a Penske truck to transport it,” Washburn said, not exaggerating.
“And it’s not legal in California,” Fleck quipped.
Michael Rydzynski is a contributor to Times Community News.
IF YOU GO
Who: Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, banjos
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 7
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, UC Irvine campus
Cost: Tickets start at $35