‘Massive shared territory:’ Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn on Chinese and Appalachian folk music

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Abigail Washburn is a GRAMMY® Award-winning singer, songwriter and clawhammer banjo player. Chinese musical prodigy Wu Fei is master of the guzheng, the ancient 21-string zither. Known for blending music from their homes in China and Appalachia, Fei and Washburn’s performances highlight shared humanity through the transformative power of song and a cross-cultural blend of music.

The pair will perform music from their self-titled album on Saturday March 2, 2024 at the Yale Schwarzman Center.

Notes from the Interviewer: The first time I heard Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei’s “The Roving Cowboy / Avarguli (阿瓦尔古丽),” I was washing dishes in my kitchen. I turned off the tap to hear it better and stood over the sink for eight minutes letting the song unspool around me. I could feel their long friendship in their work. There is no gimmick in their collaboration. In an era of rising nationalism, their music is testament to the value of human-to-human connection. As Abby says in this interview: “we have some deep cultural differences, but we have some massive shared territory as human beings.”


Megan: How did the two of you meet?

AW: Fei and I met because we have a mutual friend named Nick Forster. Nick runs a radio program called E-Town out of Boulder, Colorado. He and I had been friends for a long time. He knew my deep connection to China, and I had even played Chinese music on his show, with American musicians. And so when he saw Fei… where was it? Was it a bookshop?

WF: It was a bookstore I played after I moved to Boulder. I think he gave me his business card afterwards. I didn’t know anything about E-Town.

AW: He saw Fei playing and knew right away that she was really special, which she is. He connected us. I was playing outside of Boulder a few months later, in a little church schoolhouse with Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee. We asked her if she’d come jam with us on stage that night. It was just a very chill little show for a small community up in the mountains. And she did! She came. She drove up in this little clunker of a station wagon and pulled this beautiful big guzheng of her car, and had this bubbly, fun, sassy way about her. I just fell in love with her. We played music together, and then we stayed in touch by email, as you did back in those days—I guess that was 2006. 

Our lives paralleled in a lot of ways: world travels, playing music, connecting to Chinese and American folk traditions. And then also just breaking up with boyfriends and getting married and having children—it all kind of sort of happened at the same time for us, when we could really relate to each other.

WF: You covered everything in the best way. When we met in 2006, I was on tour in Europe a lot, because my solo record had come out in Italy. Abby was touring more in the US and China. So we really stayed in touch just through emails. America is big. It’s not easy to see each other if your paths don’t cross. Later, I moved back to Beijing for a few years. And that’s actually when Abby and I got to play together more, because she was touring China every year. I wasn’t touring as much because I’d had two babies. 

We reconnected after my family and I moved to Nashville in 2015. Still, it wasn’t easy to get work done together because we’d both just had babies. It’s just hard to work when you’re exhausted. We’re in that stage, as mothers, as women, dealing with the household stuff. We’d get a nanny to come over and watch the two babies—and then the three babies, and then the four babies—so we could work.

AW: Slowly, over many years, we shared folk songs with each other and figured out how they pieced together. Then my husband, Bela, offered to produce our album.

WF: Bela doesn’t easily just choose a project to work on. He must have known that there was something special when he watched us rehearse. Because normally you can’t pay him to sit through something. 

AW: [laughter] Right. And by that time he had a strong understanding of the material. As a producer he knew our expertise and our strengths, and how to weave us together.

Megan: How would each of you define folk music? What drew you to this music within your own artistic practice? I’d also be really interested in hearing the names of people who you think are in your sort of artistic legacy as musicians. Who are the people who are, metaphorically, in the room with you as you make work?

AW: I like that way of putting it. When I think of Fei and I making music, I think of a number of folk musicians—honestly, mostly dead ones—who have had a big impact on me through recordings.

One person Fei and I both love a lot is Doc Watson. He was my entry point into old-timey folk music from Southern Appalachia. I also think about artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, Mahalia Jackson, Roscoe Holcomb, Peggy Seger—the whole Seeger family, but more Mike and Peggy than Pete, honestly; as well as their parents, who did a lot of the recording and transcribing that you find in the Library of Congress. Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Buell Kazee, great old banjo picker and singer. Ola Belle Reed. Texas Gladden. I mean, I could go on and on, so I think I’ll stop there. But that’s what’s influenced me: a long list of recordings of this old beautiful folk music from Southern Appalachia, from the delta and the plains of the South. 

This music is derived from the coming together of cultures during the institution of slavery. You had all kinds of African peoples being forced through the Caribbean during the slave trade. The lore—although you can’t find it written anywhere—is that slave traders would take musicians first, because they’d discovered that more of their human cargo would survive the journey to America if they heard the sound of music. So almost every slave ship had local musicians on board. This meant that different kinds of lutes from all over Africa—the akonting and the ngoni, from West Gambia and Gambia and Senegal and Mali—came through the Caribbean and resulted in the invention of the banjo in America

So you had a melding of African diasporic traditions on plantations in the Southeast. Then you had immigrants from Western Europe: either poor ones coming to America to escape famine, like from Ireland and Scotland; or the English and the French and the Germans, who came to try to “discover” their new wealth on the Eastern seaboard. All those cultures were at play. 

Another story that’s fascinating to me is that white plantation masters and their families would hire dance masters to come over from France and Germany and England to come and teach the local whites how to dance. But the dance masters needed musicians. So the plantation master would hire a poor Irish immigrant to come and fiddle—not for much, since the Irish were pretty low on the rung of the caste system back then—and the African musicians on the plantation would learn the songs as well. Improvisational aspects of African musical culture—and I have to say African, even though it’s unfair to treat a continent like a country, because one of the tragedies of slavery is that it made it impossible to parse out distinct lineages—and banjo music blended with Scottish and Irish fiddling. That’s the oral tradition that I’ve become a part of.

Very little of it is actually set repertoire within music. It’s stuff you have to go seek out in recordings, or learn from other people at jam sessions. I’m really proud to be a part of that tradition because of the impact it’s had. The world has been integrated by this music. People didn’t even know it was happening. They enjoyed the process of being integrated. Our nationalistic and fearful race barriers— mostly perpetrated by people who want to make money—have kept us from seeing it and feeling it on a more intellectual level, and letting it be more a part of our mainstream self-awareness as a culture. But we’ve been heavily integrated by our arts from the very beginning of this country. That’s what this American music that I play is.

And it’s very, very different from Chinese folk music, which I’d love to hear Fei talk a little bit about. It’s an incredibly diverse world of music as well.

WF: I actually wouldn’t call myself a Chinese folk musician. I’m more of an observer. I was basically chosen to do music at the age of two and went through a very rigorous conservatory training. There are so many Chinese folk songs because the culture is so long. They’ve all been institutionalized within the conservatory. I thought of folk music as one of the subjects I needed to study to fulfill my degree.

WU FEI
Image by Annapaola Martin based on photo by Brett Warren

But now, when I look back, there was folk music everywhere. I was steeped in it. There’s a word in Chinese, xūn, which is an action word, meaning “smoke.” Imagine you burn incense in a room for forty years. Imagine I’m a piece of wood in that room. The smoke goes into the wood for forty years. That wood comes out smelling like incense. That’s me. The burning and the smoke is all the music, including the institutionalized music and the daily sounds of the streets.

My home was in the center of Beijing. There were lots of parks where people just sang opera with little bands. That was just a part of the culture. When you walked out the door, that was the sound of the neighborhood. I don’t know if it counts as folk music, because they were singing opera repertoire. But that’s the culture. You wake up, you hear some pigeons flying overhead, you hear old people far away singing opera—that’s just my entire upbringing.

But I think “folk” music is people singing about their lives. That’s why I say I’m an observer. I don’t wash clothes by hand. So I can’t come up with clothes-washing songs. I use a washing machine and a dryer. If someone makes up words about that process, that would be folk music. It’s in every culture and time period. It’s humans expressing loss, love, and craving, and work, and cooking.

When I think of who is in the room when I make music, it would be my parents. That also goes back to my upbringing. Singing is very big in Chinese culture, in the household. A lot of the folk tunes I learned were from my parents. They were constantly singing. Of course, they were arguing. But the best moments of my life were when they started singing.

I also think about my professors at the China Conservatory of Music. One part of my training to be a composer was to memorize about 300 folk songs in one semester. Another semester was to learn Chinese operas from different regions, sung in the local dialects. Another was to learn Chinese shuochang, a traditional speaking/singing music form.

Those music forms have been around for centuries, if not for more than a thousand years. During school, we would go to different villages to make field recordings and learn the music of different provinces. I don’t know if they do that any more; it’s very costly, and it’s such a different country now. They might not value these things.

But I can’t name particular folk musicians, because folk musicians in my world have been so institutionalized. They’re folk music professors teaching at conservatories. I actually had a hard time finding folk musicians in the villages. I would say, “I’ve learned some songs historically from your village. Do you know anyone who sings?” They were like, “who sings? Nobody sings. My life’s too hard. No one sings.” I would be like “ok, sorry.”

So I see myself as an observer rather than a folk musician. But I love folk songs. I’m an observer and I want to share the culture and the music, beautiful melodies and songs and stories. But what I create is not folk music.

Megan: What is your relationship with national identity? Have tensions between the American and Chinese governments become a presence in your work?

WF: I don’t think about these things when I make music. I don’t see myself as representing anything else but myself. But I can’t control what other people think of me or what category they put me in based on what I look like or the music I play. I can’t change other people’s perspectives. But they don’t know me. 

Music is human to human. It’s person to person. But unfortunately government people, who are a different species of people, see the world very differently. They have a very different purpose and ego. And they use artists as tools.

If anything can come out of our collaboration, I would love for people to learn to care about individuals. And for artists to not fall into the trap of being used as tools. I don’t trust government people in any way. They’re master manipulators. We don’t have their capacity to manipulate the world. Musicians and government people are different species, I have to say.

But maybe because I’m quite firm about what I do and why I do it, I don’t attract the wrong kind of people. I feel I’ve only been appreciated, either in the US or elsewhere. I just do human-to-human interaction. When the other kind of human species smells that, they see they can’t use me as a tool. So they disappear. When they can’t control you, they fear you. And you cannot let them control you. You have such a short lifetime. You have to find your own tribe. 

AW: I’ve enjoyed watching you, Fei, draw your lines. I remember a few years ago you were approached about being on the Chinese version of The Voice. And you didn’t say, “ooh, I could get in front of a billion people and play my music.” It was more like, “hell no. Somebody is going to put me up there and tell me what to do and how to do it. I’m not that person. That’s not what I do.”

WF: I had completely forgotten about that. I mean, I just was like, “I’m not going to be your clown.” There’s a lot of talent being discovered on that show. But so many of them ended up in such a tragic, miserable life. That’s not the life I want. I started giving public performances as a soloist at a very young age, and went to school with China’s mega music stars in high school and college. I saw the huge price those musicians had to pay in life from young to older. It was a sad life. Nothing about that kind of life attracts me.

AW: I’ve so appreciated Fei’s perspective, about just being who you are as a musician and letting the rest fall where it falls. It’s a great way to be. It’s helped me a lot. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in wanting success of one sort or another. But if you have to be anything other than exactly the artist you are to get that success, do something else. 

WF: We’re at this age. We’re mothers. We’ve lived a lot longer than—well, I realize we may be speaking to a bunch of undergrad students. I want them to know that life is long, and it’s a very complex world.

Megan: Abby, what about your relationship with the US government?

AW: There was a period of time in the early aughts—about 2004 to 2012—when I had a relationship with the US State Department. I was doing independent touring through a couple of foreigners who lived in China. Really low-budget, playing little bars and stuff. The foreigners who lived in those towns would come out and see me. 

Often there were one or two people who worked at the consulates who would be there. Mention of my name worked its way up the ranks. By 2007, I had attracted the attention of the State Department. They said, “hey, there’s this girl who can go around and talk about American folk music in Chinese and do performances for Chinese audiences that connect,” and they started setting me up with second gigs in local universities and colleges in each of the markets I was already touring. I’d play a little bar in Chongqing, and the next day I’d play Chongqing Normal University. I’d play a little theater in Chengdu, and then the next day I’d play at the Chengdu Animal Husbandry College.

So every year, between 2007-2012, I had a State Department tour. I was way into it. I consider myself a full participant in the American folk music scene. I’m capable enough of sharing stories about the history of American folk music, and folk music itself. I was comfortable and excited to share this information. Nobody asked me to be anything other than what I was. I got to be exactly who I wanted to be and do exactly what I wanted to do, and I just got to do it with audiences that I never would have gotten to do it without the State Department. They were just like, “go do your thing.”

I was approached a couple of times by different Chinese organizations to do things for them. And I started to engage in two different instances. I quickly figured out they wanted to turn me into something that I wasn’t. I immediately became uncomfortable and pulled out. I just said, “I don’t know how to be anything other than this. I don’t mind wearing a cool outfit or something, but you can’t tell me what to sing and how to sing it and how to hold my hand or my head.” I don’t do that.

Then just the relationship between China and the US just became more and more and more strained. It just became really sad. Then I had kids. Honestly, that’s the real reason I stopped engaging as much as I had before. I had children and I didn’t want to leave them. So I really can’t speak to the US-China connection through music past about 2013. I feel like if I was given an opportunity through the State Department to do something similar to what I had done in the past, where I just do what I do and I do it in front of Chinese audiences—I would do that again.

WF: The State Department—well, they’re Americans. Americans’ understanding of how artists sing or play is very different from the Chinese side. The Chinese always want to have control. You can’t sing these lyrics or those lyrics. You have to submit the lyrics to be reviewed first. It’s like a cultural thing, almost. In a family, in a household, the father must be the king. He decides for everybody how you bow, how you eat, how you hold your rice bowl. This just didn’t pop out because of the CCP. It’s been like this for 2,000 years.

So it’s very uncomfortable for individuality to blossom, which is what art is about. It’s not about collectivism or praising authority. It should be the opposite. But in Chinese culture, it’s not. It was said even by Confucius: music is a great tool to control people. So that’s the firm belief: music is to unify. So people will fight the war when they hear the war song.

But on the American side, actually—I think America is a very special place. Maybe my bar is too low. I mean, it’s just much more relaxing making music here in the U.S. No one’s going to force you to play a certain song. Even the State Department: they just say, “play whatever you want.” But in China, they will check every little thing. 

Nonetheless, the people are just people. They’re the same as people everywhere who just want to make a better life. But the governments culturally just don’t get each other. 

AW: There’s no trust at this moment. There’s just none. Back then, there was a certain amount of trust between the Cultural Bureau of China and the State Department folks. It was a special moment that I got to be a part of. I even got to tour Tibet, which is just unheard of.

WF: It’s very difficult now for Americans to go to Tibet.

AW: I was the first and only band to officially tour Tibet. I’m sure people have gone in there and played their guitars and had gigs at bars and stuff like that. But I actually got to play at the Animal Husbandry College, Tibet University, Lhasa High School—it was absolutely amazing.

WF: I’m the same age as Abby, so I also benefited from this open window of time—a ten to twenty years’ honeymoon era between the two countries. My professors at China Conservatory of Music invited musicians from England, from Australia, from Hungary, from Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and America—everywhere. It was because of that sentiment of being open, wanting to learn, wanting to exchange. It was the rising global atmosphere.

And then somehow, it got to where things are now. We’re not even that old yet, and it’s already closed? Already enemies? 

AW: I know. It’s so insane. It’s so sad. I just appreciate my friendship with Fei on so many levels. She understands my US context and the world that I got to be a part of in China, and I have a strong sense of the world she’s run in as well, in both countries. She has a broader sense of who I am than probably most of my friends could ever understand. I’m just really glad to have somebody who can see me in that way. I get to be the full me because Fei exists here.

One wish I have to put out there over and over again is that mainland Chinese people and American people had more of a way to just see each other. Yeah, we have some deep cultural differences, but we have some massive shared territory as human beings. It’s really sad that we have these keepers right now that are pulling us further and further and further apart, and making it possible for them to incite war and commit violence against each other because of how they’re isolating us. We’ve got abusers right now that are keeping us from each other. I think it’s really, really sad. 

Those barriers need to break down somehow. We need to have some fun together, make some music, and have some food. Talk about whatever’s bothering us about our husbands. There’s so much to share and enjoy.

WF: How do we get less ego-maniacal decision-making people into office? It’s not about just who’s got a big dick. Maybe women should be in office because we don’t have that kind of ego. We just want to solve problems. We’re multitaskers.

There are no direct flights between the U.S. and China at the moment. I know Chinese friends who have to fly to Ethiopia to go to China because there’s no direct flights. It’s getting more difficult to get visas. And a lot of Americans think “oh, China is scary now,” and then there’s not enough customers for airlines to resume those flights. All these obstacles are actually concrete policies that someone made.

Yale kids are smart. If you want success, solve that problem. Make that your target.

AW: Let’s get these badass Yale students working on this! Because I think it will bring them joy. And it will put their energies in the right direction. How do we pull down some of these barriers? Let’s get more of a love moment going around here.

Megan: The headline of this interview is just going to be: “it’s not about who has the big dick.” 

WF: [Laughter] So done with big dicks.

This interview was conducted by Megan Wright on February 9, 2023.

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Abigail Washburn (left) and Wu Fei (right) | Image courtesy the Kurland Agency

Author

Megan is an Eli Whitney student at Yale University (class of 2026) studying Economics with a Certificate in Persian and Iranian Studies. Previously, she spent more than a decade as a professional dancer in San Francisco and New York and studied labor relations at the City University of New York's School of Labor & Urban Studies.

megan.wright.mhw37@yale.edu