Interview: 'Wu Fei And Abigail Washburn' On Their New, Collaborative Folk Album Each a virtuoso in their own right, longtime friends and Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn team up for a tradition-blending debut album of folk music.
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Chinese Folk Music Meets Appalachian Tradition On 'Wu Fei And Abigail Washburn'

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Chinese Folk Music Meets Appalachian Tradition On 'Wu Fei And Abigail Washburn'

Chinese Folk Music Meets Appalachian Tradition On 'Wu Fei And Abigail Washburn'

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There are two world-renowned musicians from two very different parts of the world. Grammy award-winner Abigail Washburn plays one of the most popular instruments in Appalachian music, the banjo.

ABIGAIL WASHBURN: (Playing banjo).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wu Fei is a composer and virtuoso. She plays the guzheng. The instrument is more than 2,500 years old and a staple of Chinese folk music.

WU FEI: (Playing guzheng).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After more than a decade of friendship, their self-titled debut album blends traditional folk music from the U.S. and China into something completely new. And way before social distancing, they went into a national studio for a chat and to play some music for us.

So we heard these instruments separately. I would love to hear them together.

WU: Yeah, let's do a tune.

WASHBURN: Yeah. We are going to share with you a tune that we lovingly called "Cindy's Little Hand," and we're just going to do the back part of it.

WU: (Playing guzheng).

WASHBURN: (Playing banjo).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is amazing. I'm going to clap (clapping). That was wonderful.


WU: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fei, I'm going to start with you. Tell us what we just heard.

WU: The tune I just played is actually a traditional classical piece from Hunan Province. It's called "A Little Open Hand." It's pretty much exactly the same way it's been played for probably at least several hundred years. I learned every bending, every plucking has been fairly strict from how it passed down - many centuries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abigail, tell me how you ended up playing with Fei.

WASHBURN: I'll just start that we met in a small mountain town in Colorado. And we played together in this little church up in the mountains with a band I was in called The Sparrow Quartet. It was really fun. We got each other's email because that's what you did back in 2006.


WASHBURN: (Laughter) And we started emailing each other. And over the years, we just started having - getting - you know, breaking up with boyfriends, getting married and having babies all, like, on parallel paths and then visiting each other in the U.S. and in China. And eventually, we started making some music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now the music and instruments you're playing have a very interesting history. I'm going to start with you, Abigail. Most people think the banjo comes from Appalachia. Well, it's most closely associated with Appalachia. But it's actually an instrument from West Africa.

WASHBURN: That's right. And it was brought over on the slave ships. And the story goes that a lot of the slave masters would look for banjo players or some kind of lute player from the hometown where they took all of the people from. And they were in such horrible conditions on the boats that if they heard the sound of that instrument playing, their souls would be more likely to stay intact with their body. And they would live to the other side.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, Fei, some of the Chinese folk music featured in this album, I understand, has been wrongly attributed.

WU: Yes. There are quite a few of them. And one of them is called "Wusuli Boat Song." We combined it with "Water Is Wide," English on the - Abby sings on the record. This "Wusuli Boat Song" is from the Hezhezu (ph) people, also known as Nanai. And it's one small group of ethnic minority people. However, this one was recorded down by a famous singer. So I grew up - remember the song as this famous singer's song. Once Abby and I start working together on this record, I felt absolutely necessary to trace down what really this song came from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can we sample another song off the album?

WASHBURN: Well, how about we play that song that Fei is referring to from the Nanai people?


WU FEI AND ABIGAIL WASHBURN: (Playing instruments, singing in non-English language).

WU: (Singing in non-English language).

WU AND WASHBURN: (Singing) The water is wide. I can't cross o'er. And neither have I wings to fly. Give me a boat that can carry two. And we shall row, my child and I.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, it's beautiful. This music brings two cultures together. The U.S. and China are often seen at odds with each other economically, politically. How is it to blend these musical traditions together in an age where there's tension between the two countries, Abigail?

WASHBURN: Well, something that's a great privilege and reminder is that we're all people. We are all connected to families, cooking and working, that connection of that universal humanity of living day by day and trying to find the beauty in it and magnify it.

WU: Building communities, knowing that, actually, people from other parts of the world do exactly the same. If you want your children to grow healthy, that's what mothers from Middle East, from South America - all want to do have that (laughter).

WASHBURN: I think we both believe that collaboration is the way that we need to think more than hierarchy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei. Their new self-titled album is out now. What are you going to play us out with?

WASHBURN: We're going to play a song where we started sharing with each other cowboy and desert songs, and these are the two that really jived.

WU: This one is one of my favorite songs. It's so beautiful...


WU AND WASHBURN: (Singing) I've tried the streets of...

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