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Originally published March 21, 2013 at 5:00 AM | Page modified March 21, 2013 at 11:17 AM

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‘Banj-O-Rama’ brings a global twang to Town Hall Seattle

Banjos and close banjo relations (the West African kora, the Japanese shamisen) will bring a global twang to Town Hall Seattle in “Banj-O-Rama,” featuring singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn and local players Kane Mathis and Mary Ohno, March 22, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

‘Banj-O-Rama,’ featuring Abigail Washburn

8 p.m. Friday, Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5-$20 (888-377-4510 or www.townhallseattle.org).

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I'm glad to see this. A banjo-rama was held for years at our family's ranch in the... MORE

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And every instrument shall have its own “O-Rama” ...

For the past five years, Town Hall Seattle has hosted an “Accordi-O-Rama” as part of its Global Rhythms series. This year, series curator Brian Faker decided to switch the focus to the banjo.

Hence “Banj-O-Rama.”

The concert stars banjo-playing singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn, joined by local virtuosos Kane Mathis (on the kora, a West African banjo antecedent) and Mary Ohno (on the shamisen, Japan’s answer to the banjo).

Washburn herself — who speaks fluent Chinese and was set to attend law school in Beijing before she chanced into the music business — will contribute some Chinese flavor to the global mix.

Washburn keeps up a busy tour schedule. She’ll be on the road with her celebrated banjoist husband, Béla Fleck, later this year. (No chance that he’ll make a surprise appearance at “Banj-O-Rama”: He has a gig with Chick Corea in Nashville that same night.)

Last week Washburn performed in Australia and New Zealand, where she fielded some questions by email, starting with a query about her first banjo encounter.

“I’m sure I heard the banjo as a child,” she says, “but I don’t remember it.”

The first time she started to register American traditional music — bluegrass, blues, jazz — was in college. She had a boyfriend who played mandolin in a bluegrass band, and she wound up as the band’s “merch girl” at their shows and festivals.

“One night,” she says, “somebody put on a record of Doc Watson, and I remember the song ‘Shady Grove’ coming on, and I was smitten. ... To me it had a welcoming sound, a universal sound. That’s when I got the itch to buy a banjo and start learning old-time Appalachian music.”

The banjo, to her, is “the essence of folk tradition.” It has, she says, “a quality of openness and resonance, heritage and antiquity. ... It belongs to no one, it belongs to everyone.”

Although she’s based in Nashville, Washburn has a slight local connection, thanks in part to a mountain-climbing course she took with Bellingham’s American Alpine Institute when she was 18.

“We climbed all over northern Washington for 10 days,” she says, “and I learned a lot about stinky guys and the courage to do things you can’t imagine being able to do ... like climbing to the top of Mount Shuksan at 2 a.m. in the moonlight, or climbing a rock-wall face with only the tiniest of ledges to hang on. I think this is one of the main reasons I had the courage to dive into music, even when it didn’t seem like I was made of the stuff to do it. Between sheer luck, courage and an emerging mission to bridge U.S. and China with banjo music, I’ve ended up living a life I never could have imagined.”

She and Fleck, who are expecting a baby in June, have their work cut out coordinating their touring schedules. It was a tough choice, she says, opting to appear at “Banj-O-Rama” rather than see her husband and Corea play together in her hometown.

“But Banj-O-rama is a tantalizing name for a gal the likes of me!” she says. “Throw the shamisen and kora into the mix, and the decision was clear.”

For more on Washburn, including a full delightful account of her law student-to-banjoist transformation, go to www.abigailwashburn.com and look for her “TED Talk.”

By the way, Seattle banjo lovers should revel in this “Banj-O-Rama” while they can.

Next year “Harp-O-Rama” takes over.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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