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Photograph courtesy of Wu Fei
Photograph courtesy of Wu Fei

Sino-Nashville Twang

Nashville is famous for its twang, but Wu Fei takes that sound to a new realm. She picks with banjo players. But her instrument has five times as many strings.

When the pandemic began, an eruption of writers, musicians, photographers, and so on decided it would be a great moment to post regular “content” (a curse upon whoever “trended” that word) so that we all might enjoy some simulacrum of connection during our isolation.

Alas, most of that enthusiasm fizzled quickly. It turns out that posting on a schedule is harder than it looks, and posting something good on the regular is damn near impossible. But several stalwarts remain who are pointing the way to a viable distribution model that bypasses the usual gatekeepers.

One musician thriving in this new paradigm is Nashville-based Wu Fei. As of June 6, Fei (her given name; family names appear first in Chinese convention) has delivered 800 pieces of new music to her roughly 2,000 subscribers to Wu Fei’s Music Daily. She launched this project on May 1, 2020, with a commitment to deliver a new piece every Monday through Friday and, aside from a few travel interruptions, she has kept that promise.

(A subscription costs $8.88 per month, or roughly 45 cents per new track. If you don’t want to pay, Monday and Friday are free to everyone. Such a deal!)

Fei is not your central casting Nashville musician. Her journey from a childhood in Beijing to living in Music City, U.S.A., is similar to many immigrant stories, with a few exceptions peculiar to someone pegged as a prodigy while still a toddler. Her story is just one more that highlights the inestimable richness such migration brings to our nation.

Her instrument is the guzheng, a 21-string zither-like instrument dating back more than 2,000 years to China’s Qin dynasty. The guzheng is the precursor to a variety of Asian instruments such as the Korean gayageum, the Japanese koto, and the Vietnamese in tranh. (This is where I urge you to fire up the Google machine and check out what these very cool axes sound like, too.) It also happens to blend quite nicely with a mandolin tremolo or a bluegrass banjo breakdown. Not to mention an orchestra, violin, electric guitar…heck, in Fei’s hands, the guzheng even blends with a dadgum freight train.

“If I ever improvised or anything, my teachers would yell at me, ‘Stop that! What do you think you’re doing?’ Stuff like that was my background.”

First up, let’s hear track No. 799 from earlier this month. Fei wrote “Baby San’r 宝贝三儿” in memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Every year on this day, I think of my hometown Beijing with a heavy heart. A group of mothers lost their teenage children in a horrific event on this day thirty-four years ago in my hometown. I was still a kid. Now as a mother, I created this piece as if playing my child’s favorite song to put him to sleep.

The melodic element from the beginning is typical intonation of traditional storytelling art 曲艺 from northern China, especially Beijing and Tianjin 京津 area. This music art form has had more than 1500 years of history. It was already popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) from monks singing stories of the Buddhist sutra and scriptures.

—Wu Fei, June 4, 2023

Here’s track No. 178 from just a few months into the project. Fei describes it as multitracked piece “prepared guzheng and my vocals. I saw my daughter’s elastic hair bands laying around the house right before I went into my studio. The sound that gives the percussive noise in the recording is from me pulling the rubber bands which then bounced back to the strings. It felt a bit like shooting with a slingshot.”

Wu Fei, one of the world’s most prominent guzheng virtuosos, is also an accomplished singer, composer, and improviser. Born in Beijing, she was tagged as a prodigy at age two and was delivering solo recitals by age eight. At nine, she was spending full weekends at the China Conservatory of Music for intensive training that was equal parts traditional Chinese and Western classical forms. She is equally at home playing with banjo sizzlers like Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck; collaborating with new music improvisers like Cecil Taylor or Fred Frith; or setting up her guzheng alongside a Nashville train track for this impromptu duet between several thousand tons of steel and one of the world’s oldest known instruments.

Now that’s heavy metal.

Photograph by Shervin Laine
Photograph by Shervin Laine

Jamming with a freight train is a long way from the restrictive Chinese musical education hierarchy. Fei came to the states for the first time in 2000 to study composition at North Texas State University in Denton. When graduate school beckoned— her parents were determined she would earn her doctorate and become an academic—Fei found herself at California’s Mills College in Oakland. It was a fateful turn. Mills is famous for its eclectic music program. The list of faculty and students who have worked there over the past sixty years reads like a who’s who of the new and experimental music world, and it remains a vital force to this day.

But Fei knew none of this. Nor did she know that her academic advisor, guitarist/composer Fred Frith, was renowned for a career that spans rock, jazz, classical, and noise idioms. Until then, Fei had been steeped in a classical pedagogy that considered improvisation an unspeakable transgression. Things were about to change.

After listening to a few of her recordings, Frith offered a suggestion. “I hear wonderful craft in your music,” he told her. “But I don’t hear Fei. It’s time to let go of the structure and let your nature flow out. Don’t be afraid.”

The advice was so jarring that Fei disappeared from school for a week to take stock. She had always made music to satisfy other people’s expectations.

“If I ever improvised or anything,” she told me, “my teachers would yell at me, ‘Stop that! What do you think you’re doing?’ Stuff like that was my background.”

But she took Frith’s advice to heart and began to cultivate her own musical nature. Fortunately, the rotating faculty at Mills allowed her to study with legends like Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran, Pauline Oliveros, Cecil Taylor, and Meredith Monk. While Fei had never heard of these icons before, she devoured their lessons like a person starved.

“It takes at least five years to get an album done. It’s crazy. But I can put out a new piece every day, and it goes straight to people who want to hear it, and it feels so good.”

When it came time to record her first album, A Distant Youth (2007), she enlisted Frith and violinist Carla Kihlstedt for a series of gorgeous duets and trios that occupy a juncture of Chinese traditional, Western classical, and avant-garde experimentation that maintains a logical coherence even at its edgiest. This short and quick guzheng/guitar piece is perfect example of how Fei blended the lessons of her Mills education with her deep immersion in the China Conservatory tradition.

Wu Fei performing on two guhzengs at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photograph by Cora Wagoner)
Wu Fei performing on two guhzengs at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photograph by Cora Wagoner)

Fei moved to Colorado to teach, and then for a time to Brooklyn, a span when she claims to have “spent more time in the Munich airport for layovers” than at home. It was a busy period that found her playing with a wide array of artists, contributing to film soundtracks, and writing and performing her own music. In 2009, she released Yuan, an album of mesmerizing chamber compositions featuring traditional Chinese and Western instruments. (It’s on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and like most Zorn joints, you won’t find this one streaming, but it is well worth a few bucks for the CD.)

Eventually, Fei and her husband (South African journalist Jeremy Goldkorn) grew weary of raising two kids in noisy, cramped, and increasingly expensive quarters in Brooklyn. A move to Beijing proved no better. Nashville offered a solution, and by 2015 they had settled into a mountainside house with room for gardening and play space for the kids. Soon after that, Fei moved her elderly parents from Beijing to Tennessee to live with her and her family.

The Nashville move also allowed her to reconnect with singer/banjoist Abigail Washburn. They met in 2006 during Fei’s tenure at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, when Washburn—who had spent long stretches in China studying the country’s folk music and is fluent in Mandarin—invited Fei to sit in for a concert that included several Chinese folk tunes she had known since childhood.

By the time they reconnected, they were both raising young kids, so they got the tots together for play dates and played music on the front porch. The result was the 2020 Smithsonian Folkways release Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn, one of my favorite “world music” releases in recent memory. It’s a seamless blend of the folk traditions of China and Appalachia that sidesteps the pastiche pitfalls of so many cross-ethnic collaborations. The plucked twangs of banjo and guzheng sound like they were made for one another, while the harmonic twining of the English and Mandarin lyrics are pure and sublime.

This merge of a Chinese folk chant with the bluegrass evergreen “Cluck Old Hen” is a fine example of a “world music” that does not lazily exoticize non-Western music. In these women’s capable hands, music is a representation of an “us” that has a capital U.

When I asked Fei about possibilities for a new album, she replied, “It takes at least five years to get an album done. It’s crazy. But I can put out a new piece every day, and it goes straight to people who want to hear it, and it feels so good. Who has five years to make an album? How many ‘five years’ do I even have left?”

Though Substack is now her primary musical venue, Fei continues to mount projects beyond her serene Nashville acreage. Her recent chamber orchestra composition Hello Gold Mountain features Fei on guzheng and Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on oud—a pairing of traditional Chinese and Jewish plucked string instruments. This work was inspired by the Jewish diaspora into Shanghai during World War II. Here’s an excerpt from the 2019 premiere with the Nashville-based Chatterbird ensemble.

Fei will present Hello Gold Mountain with the Philadelphia Orchestra this September in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, in Winnipeg, during the winter. And several appearances with Abigail Washburn are scheduled for this November and next spring.

She has also been commissioned by Ha Concerts in Gent, Belgium, to lead a new quartet project next March. This project takes her into what she laughingly called “avant-garde land. I don't know what we will come up with,” she said, “but these are three very interesting artists.”

You can keep up with Fei’s calendar at her website. In the meantime, sign up for your daily dose of shimmer at Wu Fei’s Music Daily.

Seriously, y’all. Go. Listen.

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Chattanooga-based writer/musician Rob Rushin-Knopf, Salvation South’s longtime culture warrior, blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom and appears regularly as one-half of the near-jazz duo RoboCromp.

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