With everything in the news, the time is ripe for remembering that regular folks everywhere have more in common than what divides us. Case in point: a new, exquisite recording coming from long-time collaborators Abigail Washburn of Nashville and Wu Fei of Beijing.
Washburn and Wu Fei have toured together in the US before, delivering a slightly spacy, bizarre blend of American and Chinese folk sounds. Now, as they embark on the release of their first collaborative album, titled simply Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn, they bring listeners music that demonstrates how closely tied are the deep traditions of American folk (seeded in this case, mostly, by English, Irish, and Scottish traditions) and the ancient folk songs of China.
Making the sound even sweeter is the fact that Washburn’s clawhammer banjo and Wu Fei’s guzheng are so close in tonality and timbre that one may be hard-pressed at times to distinguish them. So too are their voices perfectly matched, in melancholy and vocal attack.
In this newly released song, “Four Seasons,” the singers swap verses first in Chinese and then in English, galloping through a romping rhythm so wonderfully held by their stringed instruments that one would be forgiven for thinking there’s a drum in there somewhere.
“’Four Seasons,’” says Wu Fei, “uses the flowers that blossom from each season to express romance that young people have for each other, especially from the girls to the boys!”
To that end, the song’s spirit is lively and almost cinematic, like a pair of friends riding bareback through some rural space in either country. Indeed, Washburn says, “When I sing and play clawhammer banjo with Fei on this Chinese folk song from Qinghai, I like to imagine the bold women of the Tibetan plateau on horseback calling out to their lovers. Badass ladies of the high plains!”
Then, just as the song is picking up speed, they land on a unison note so powerful and precise, it’s hard to believe it’s two separate voices.
If you’re skeptical of the easy connection between American and Chinese folk, there’s no time like quarantine to be proven wrong. Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn releases on Smithsonian Folkways April 3.
Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn is available for pre-order via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings – HERE.