I recently had the pleasure of hearing Abigail Washburn, a master of the clawhammer banjo, and Wu Fei, who plays the 21-string Chinese guzheng, perform together for the first time. Both Abigail and Fei sing in English and Mandarin and focus their music on weaving together traditional Appalachian and Chinese folk tunes. Their sound has been described as “both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody’s ever heard before.” I definitely found that to be the case. They graciously agreed to sit down with me for an interview to learn more about them and their music.
Tomorrow evening will be the final installment of a residency at Flatrock Coffee. Doors are at 5:45 pm and the show will start at approximately 6:15 pm.
Donations only with 100% of the proceeds benefiting the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE). http://
Q: You were essentially en route to Beijing to study law when you were offered a recording contract and decided to become a folk musician. What made you change your mind?
A (Abigail): If you had asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you I wanted to be a judge so I thought law would be a good way to do that. But I was obsessed with China and Chinese culture in college and I went to China when I was 18 after my freshman year of college. When I returned home to Minnesota, my relatives would be like, “So how’s Japan?” I saw a real opportunity to help deal with the ignorance of the Chinese from the American perspective and from the Chinese perspective about Americans. I wasn’t sure at the time how I was going to do that.
I started studying for the Chinese language test required of foreign students and planned to go to law school in Beijing, China. Also, at the time, I didn’t consider myself to be much of a musician. I sang in the choir, but that was about it.
But before I went, I was spending time with a friend in a bluegrass band. I wasn’t crazy about bluegrass, but when I finally heard old time Appalachian balladry, I was moved by it. So, I decided to get a banjo and learn some songs to share in China. I went on this big road trip that included learning some banjo music in West Virginia and the Carolinas, and on a whim, I went to a bluegrass convention in Kentucky. While I was there, I ended up playing a couple songs I had learned with some girls in a hallway, and I got offered a record deal!
My whole life just flipped on its belly at that point. I moved to Nashville instead of moving to China. I got a record deal right away and I started just pursuing music. I needed to learn how to play and how to write my own songs. How to stand in front of people and play. The part I didn’t have to learn was how to read contracts.
It has been fourteen years since then. I’ve gone on to do about fifteen tours in China, a couple of which were supported by the State Department, and have been touring like crazy in the States.
Q: Fei, you’ve lived in the states about 15 years?
A (Fei): I’ve been in the States about thirteen of the last fifteen years—I moved back to china for a Couple years in 2009. I moved here originally in 2000 to do a Bachelor’s in music composition in Denton, Texas. After that, I moved to the Bay Area for my Master’s. I’ve lived in Brooklyn and traveled and played extensively throughout the country. I would periodically come to Nashville to write and record with Abby.
When I moved, I knew I wanted to go somewhere to see what is outside of China. And I knew the best way to go somewhere was to go to school. I was already a poor student. I got a scholarship to UNT, packed my guzheng, scores, and bags, and just flew from Beijing over to Japan and then to Texas.
The first day standing in line at the cafeteria, I thought I spoke English well. I was looking around asking myself what are those things and what are they called in English. Now I know enchiladas and everything else.
Q: How did the two of you originally join forces?
A (Abigail): I received an email from a mutual friend of ours named Nick Forster. He runs eTown in Colorado. He just thought I’d like Fei a lot and wrote me an email that said you’ve gotta meet this girl. Honestly, a lot of people say to me “Oh, I know this Chinese person you’ve got to meet.” I know Nick is a special guy who cares a lot about music, so I took him seriously and invited her to play with me at a little school house show north of Boulder. After that, we just liked each other a lot and started emailing each other about life and our feelings.
Q: What else are you both working on now?
A (Fei): A huge part of our current efforts are devoted to composing and recording songs for this project. My husband and I have also started a new business called 99words.com where we write children’s books teaching American children Chinese folk songs in Mandarin. We currently have two books and are getting feedback now.
Q: My understanding is that education is both highly valued and extremely competitive in China. Please put into perspective the number of applicants and the path to the top music conservatory in China.
A (Fei): It is heartbreaking. I can tell you my story. I got into the conservatory high school. We start competing as early teenagers. Every child prodigy wants to get into the conservatory. At that time, they accepted twelve kids every year from the whole country. My year, there were three additional kids admitted on a probationary basis. All of the music high school kids then compete to get into the college. I was automatically selected as the top high school graduate, but the others had to undergo two weeks of competition to see who would get into the remaining two open slots available for composition. After an intense year of preparation, there were tests on music theory, piano, ear training, folk music, and music history. There was also an extemporaneous composition exam where you were handed a two bar motif and had four hours to write an original composition that incorporates that motif. That is competition. The notification process is equally heartbreaking. There is a billboard in a public square listing the names and ranks and scores from the exam.
Q: What are your favorite tacos in town?
A (Abigail): Mas Tacos
Q: And the best Chinese food?
A (Fei): Asian Corner in Brentwood.
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Event hosted by FMRL. (Pronounced, “ephemeral.”)