'Afterquake': Rebuilding Sichuan With Song A year after a devastating earthquake, Sichuan province in China is still rebuilding. Many children remain separated from their parents. To raise awareness of victims still in need, Abigail Washburn and Dave Liang spent two weeks in Sichuan to create Afterquake, an album that mixes actual sounds of the rebuilding with the voices of relocated school children.
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'Afterquake': Rebuilding Sichuan With Song

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'Afterquake': Rebuilding Sichuan With Song

'Afterquake': Rebuilding Sichuan With Song

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We're in Washington.


And I'm Melissa Block, wrapping up our week of stories from Sichuan, China. And today, we'll the hear voices of children who lived through the earthquake here last May.

(Soundbite of a horn)

Ms. ABIGAIL WASHBURN (Folk Musician): These are excerpts from the interviews that we had with all the children, where we asked them: what did the earthquake sound like. And separately, none of them listening to each other's interviews, all made this sound, sort of like a hawng.

BLOCK: That's folk musician Abigail Washburn talking about her new project, a benefit album called "Afterquake." Washburn and electronic artist Dave Liang recorded the children, their songs, poems and games, and set them to music in a kind of post-quake soundscape.

Washburn use to live in Sichuan as an exchange student and after the earthquake, she and Dave Liang came back. She brought her banjo and she played at temporary schools set up for children who'd lost their homes. The kids have been relocated often hours away from their parents.

Ms. WASHBURN: After I would perform, I'd have these students come up to me and want to share their songs with me. And a lot of times, they would share stories, too. And there were very, there were many very emotional moments where girls would sit on my lap and start crying and saying, (Foreign language spoken) I don't believe in myself. I don't know how to believe in myself anymore. I don't trust the world. I don't trust life.

I was shook to the core by that and I didn't...

BLOCK: What do you say to that?

Ms. WASHBURN: I said, (Foreign language spoken).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHBURN: I said, (Foreign language spoken) You've got to believe in yourself. When you're down, sing. Sing, you know, your voice is so beautiful, you should sing. It will make you feel better. And that's where it kind of left off.

BLOCK: Let's listen to one of these songs. This is called "Song for Mama." And this includes sound of people rebuilding their home.

(Soundbite of song, "Song for Mama")

Mr. DAVID LIANG (Electronic Artist): So what you hear at first is brick laying, and then you hear a cement mixer come in. And that's the sound of a wheelbarrow that actually carries the bricks and also some of the gravel.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. Now we're hearing a woman speaking here.

Mr. LIANG: Yeah, that's the mother of this boy that we met named (unintelligible). He and all of his classmates were relocated to (unintelligible), which is I guess four to six hours away. And they don't see their parents on a regular basis anymore. So that was the sound of his mother speaking and she was saying, you have to study hard. Whatever you do, mother and father will always support you.


Mr. LIANG: And he's sort of repaying this with a very emotional dedication to his mother.

(Soundbite of song, "Song for Mama")

BLOCK: What's the son singing in the song to his mother here, Abigail?

Ms. WASHBURN: At first, he's singing of moon. He's singing to the moon. Moon, I give you my heart's longing, you know, my missing of my mother, for you to then give to her because we're so far away. Mom, your child misses you so much.

And she's saying, (unintelligible), I'll always support you. I'm always going to support you.

Mr. LIANG: It was just a really moving song, purely a cappella when he sang it for us. So we went and visited his family in (unintelligible). There was a really poignant scene when Abby took out her laptop and actually played the acappella of her son singing this song, which is dedicated to her, to the mother. And she just broke down in tears. And she had these headphones on and it was a very surreal scene and, I think, reminded us of how powerful this music could be.

BLOCK: There are beautiful photographs there on your Web site that show these girls at these relocation schools, washing their laundry out of plastic buckets and their toothbrushes are all lined up, and they're sitting on bunk beds. It looks like a happy place and I'm sure it isn't always by any stretch. But there's one song here which includes, I guess a poem from one of the students at one of these schools, and you call it "Dream Seek." Tell us about that one.

Ms. WASHBURN: The poem was written by a young name Loho Mei((ph) and she wrote this in response to the earthquake and this actually just an excerpt of a much longer poem. We took the first portion of it from this poem called (Foreign language spoken), which means chasing the dream.

(Soundbite of song, "Dream Seek")

Ms. WASHBURN: The door to my dream slowly opens. The bloom of my dream slowly unfolds. Dream, I slowly, slowly come to you. I can't wander from you. I will forever follow after you.

BLOCK: Had a lot of the students at these schools lost friends, lost family members in the earthquake?

Ms. WASHBURN: Oh, yes. This particular relocation school took kids from Chuamoa(ph), which is a certain part of Wentrun County. They luckily weren't in the epicenter of the earthquake, so not everyone lost someone. But three of them lost direct relatives. And during our interviews with them, they clearly showed their grief and their continued grief. And one girl said, I just don't know how to feel comfortable in the world anymore, because the people I shared my life with have gone.

Mr. LIANG: You know, it's interesting. When we interviewed them, they were obviously a lot of stories of loss and separation that obviously are just uncomfortable for any human being. But I think what both Abby and I did not anticipate was that from, I guess, the darkest depths, these children were actually able to find so much happiness, especially in the school at (unintelligible). It was just an amazing communal experience. And I think the earthquake definitely brought them all so much closer together.

And we definitely, we saw so much joy and obviously half of the record is just very uplifting. And they were some of the happiest kids, to be honest, that I think I've ever seen. And it was just very reassuring to both Abby and myself.

Ms. WASHBURN: It was. It was really surprising. We thought we were going to go into the heart of this and find out that grief was the thing we needed to work through. And although a portion of it absolutely is, the bulk of what we found was children rebuilding their lives and living to the best they could, and taking advantage of everything they had around them to make that possible. There's a lot of hope. So much hope.

BLOCK: Well, let's end on one of the most uplifting pieces here that you've done. This is two sisters from one of the Tibetan areas of Sichuan. And there's just incredible lyricism and sweetness in this song.

(Soundbite of a Tibetan lullaby)

Ms. WASHBURN: Well, you would never know it but this is actually the response to Dave and I asking the group, hey, what did your parents sing to you at night? You know, is there a lullaby or something? And these girls step up and they just jump in. And it's like, jamming rap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHBURN: We're like, this is awesome.

BLOCK: Tibetan rap.

Well, Abigail Washburn and Dave Liang, thanks so much.

Ms. WASHBURN: Thank you so much for having us, Melissa.

Mr. LIANG: Thanks very much.

(Soundbite of a Tibetan lullaby)

BLOCK: You'll find more music and video from "Afterquake" at nprmusic.org.

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