Wall Street Journal Features Fei + Abigail Washburn

MUSICIANS MELD TRADITIONS OF TWO CONTINENTS

Banjo player Abigail Washburn and guzheng master Wu Fei will play Bela Fleck’s Acoustic Planet Tales series at Symphony Space

By LARRY BLUMENFELD

Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei will perform their first full concert together as part of Acoustic Planet Tales, a series running Oct. 14 to 23, curated by and featuring the widest-ranging of banjo players, Béla Fleck, who is Ms. Washburn’s husband. PHOTO: ANTHONY SCARLATI

The Grammy award-winning singer and clawhammer-style banjo player Abigail Washburn fell in love with Appalachian music and Chinese culture at roughly the same time, more than 20 years ago. She never figured the two would combine in career-changing ways.

Wu Fei, a master of the 21-stringed guzheng, a Chinese zither, was groomed for greatness in her native country’s traditional music. She hardly expected to end up living in Nashville, Tenn., playing the instrument in wildly untraditional contexts.

In duet at Symphony Space Monday, these musicians will showcase an innovative approach to cross-cultural exchange—and a friendship that has crisscrossed the globe. They will perform as part of Acoustic Planet Tales, a series running Oct. 14 to 23, curated by and featuring the widest-ranging of banjo players, Béla Fleck, who is Ms. Washburn’s husband.

 

Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei perform “Wusuli Boat Song/The Water is Wide” live at Middlebury College in Vermont in July 2015, melding Chinese and American folk songs into one.

 

The Symphony Space engagement represents the two women’s first full concert together, yet listeners can find them collaborating online. In one YouTube video, from a brief performance last summerat Vermont’s Middlebury College, they combine “Wusuli Boat Song,” from the Hezhe ethnic group, and “The Water is Wide,” an American folk classic of Scottish origin. The effect is less a mashup or medley than a simultaneous expression of melodies, languages and sentiments in natural harmony.

That performance reminded Ms. Washburn of her first meeting with Ms. Wu, in 2006. 

“Fei began playing and singing folk songs from the Sichuan province,” Ms. Washburn said in an interview. “And then I played folk tunes I knew. Something clicked.”

Ms. Wu also felt a sudden charge. Ms. Washburn’s clawhammer playing reminded her of the three-stringed sanxian, the Chinese lute her father played. 

“She unlocked something inside of me,” Ms. Wu said. “We knew we had to make more music.”

That didn’t happen until 2010, once Ms. Wu had moved back to Beijing and Ms. Washburn began touring regularly in China. 

They settled into a duo in 2015, after Ms. Wu settled in Nashville. They haven’t yet recorded an album, but for the past year they have been “building steam,” Ms. Washburn said, through informal coffee-shop performances and, lately, through a project with Nashville schools showcasing their unique music and stories of cross-cultural communion.

Reaching across borders has proved remarkably smooth for this duo, in part because their instruments are naturally consonant and they are both bilingual. Ms. Washburn, who is 38 years old, had first visited China while in college and later, made plans to attend law school in Beijing. 

But music interfered. Inspired by folk master Doc Watson, she bought a banjo. Later, an impromptu audition during a bluegrass festival led to a record deal. As her music career blossomed, so did her engagement with China. In 2011, she completed a month-long tour of China’s Silk Road with support from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“I ended up finding an amazing way to connect with Chinese people by making music,” she said. “One far deeper than I ever would have found through law.”

Ms. Wu, 39, was on a clear path of Chinese tradition until she moved to the U.S. to study at Mills College, where she encountered guitarist Fred Frith, one of the many adventurous improvisers she has since worked with.

“My first lesson with Fred was a reality check,” she said. “He told me that I needed to cut clean from my past, let things flow naturally. No one had ever told me that music was something I could do for myself.” 

Working with Ms. Washburn has furthered that feeling, she said, helping her embrace her roots on her own terms. For example, after doing some research, Ms. Wu wrote new lyrics for “Wusuli Boat Song” to avoid the propagandist version popularized in China. 

“And with Abby,” she said. “I can share an innovative side of my culture that maybe isn’t well known.” 

The Acoustic Planet Tales series represents a homecoming for its curator, Mr. Fleck. He first picked up a banjo while growing up in an Upper West Side apartment, not far from Symphony Space. 

“The stereotypes around the instrument didn’t relate to me,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in a rural setting, and I thought that banjo players could make any kind of music they pleased.” 

His career to date, which includes 16 Grammy awards while spanning several genres, proves that point.

Mr. Fleck will begin his series on Friday, performing in a rare duet with the bassist of his Flecktones band, Victor Wooten. He will close it on Oct. 23, sitting in a circle with Tony Trischka, Seamus Egan and Don Vappie, for a “Banjo Roundtable” that embraces many styles and influences.

For Mr. Fleck, what makes such connections click, beyond masterly technique, are broad-mindedness and intimacy. 

Ms. Washburn agrees. The magic of her collaboration with Ms. Wu, she said, results “partly from open tunings, but mostly from open minds—and the feeling of trust in a true friend.”

Read it online at the Wall Street Journal