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

Apr 5, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 11:12 am

Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn, who released a self-titled debut album as a duo on Friday, have lived almost parallel lives. Both women were born in 1977, and both grew up to be accomplished and virtuosic folk musicians, albeit in completely different folk traditions. Wu is a composer and a world-renowned virtuoso on the guzheng, a 2500-year-old string instrument which is a staple of Chinese folk music. Meanwhile, Washburn is a banjo player who has won a Grammy Award for her reinterpretations of traditional Appalachian music.

Wu and Washburn are also longtime friends. Their new album, which weaves together traditional folk tunes and melodies from across the U.S. and China, is the product of both their illustrious solo careers and over a decade of collaboration and friendship.

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke to Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn about how their friendship began and the stories behind the traditional songs that they arranged and recorded for the album. [Editor's Note: This interview and its performances were pre-recorded before social distancing measures were implemented across the country.] Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for highlights of the interview, including a live in-studio performance of "Water Is Wide / Wusuli Boat Song."

Interview Highlights

On the origins of their friendship and musical partnership

Abigail Washburn: We met in a small mountain town in Colorado because a friend of ours, Nick Forster, who hosts eTown radio show, told us that we had to meet each other, so we did. And we played together in this little church up in the mountains with a band I was in called the Sparrow Quartet and it was really fun. We got each other's email, because that's what you did back in 2006, and we started emailing each other. And over the years we started, you know, breaking up with boyfriends, getting married and having babies, all on parallel paths, and then visiting each other in the U.S. and in China. And eventually we started making some music.

On the personal and political history behind "Water Is Wide / Wusuli Boat Song"

Washburn: One day we were sitting on my porch. We had asked a babysitter to watch the little ones while threw back and forth ideas, which is one of the funnest things we get to do, just share stories and songs that we've heard that have been passed down to us. And in desperation, as a new mother, I said "Fei, do you have any songs that actually put your babies to sleep?"

Wu Fei: So naturally I was like "Oh, this river song! Let's try this one."

"Wusuli Boat Song" is from the Hezhe people, also known as the Nanai; in their own language it's called "Nanai," in Mandarin it's called "Hezhe." It's one small group of ethnic minorities who live on the Wusuli River in northeastern China — it actually runs through China and Russia, so half of the population live on the China side and half live on the Russia side — and they've traditionally lived in the river's bank and boats.

After 1949, when the People's Republic of China was established, there was a lot of the reestablishment of the nationalist sound of Chinese music. So a lot of songwriters or composers or ethnomusicologists were sent by the government, to search for folk songs. There were a lot of beautiful folk songs, of course, all over the country. This one was studied and recorded by someone who later became a really famous singer [Guo Song] by discovering this song. Since I had memory, I remember this song as this famous singer's song. Once Abby and I started working together on this record, I felt the absolute necessity to trace down what the song really came from and I discovered it's actually the Hezhe people's original folk song. And they actually sued this singer, and there's [an online document] in English and Chinese about this lawsuit.

The lyrics that the singer added were propaganda, the party's propaganda. And then the town hall of that tribe in the Wusuli River area, they decided "We need to take our melody back, but we don't want the lyrics." It's the intangible heritage of their own culture. That happened about a decade ago. So I now have finally learned the truth of where this tune comes from. The population of the Hezhe people is tiny; it's no more than 30,000. However, this song has been popular among 1.4 billion people.


On folk musics transcending political and cultural boundaries

Washburn: Something that's a great privilege and reminder is that we're all people. And the systems we live within are things we need to contribute to and illuminate what works for us and what doesn't. A lot of that comes from the day-to-day life stuff, and the ability to remind us that we are all connected to families, we're all connected to cooking and working and making our lives every day something that's worthwhile and worth being here. I think that's what Fei and I really feel connected on singing about; that is actually the most powerful thing in our world, that connection of the universal humanity of living day-by-day and trying to find the beauty in it and magnify it.

Wu: Just building communities [with] the people who matter in your own circle of life, and knowing that actually people from other parts of the world do exactly the same.

NPR's Denise Guerra and Hadeel Al-Shalchi produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


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... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.