Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn: Album Review

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn have created a work that is a testament to the connective power of music across seemingly disparate cultures. Read on to find out what John makes of an album that has affected his outlook on music.

Released: 3rd April 2020

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Formats: CD / Digital

It is nearly always a pleasure to be asked to review an album.  Occasionally, it is an absolute delight to do so, and, very occasionally, it is an honour.  It was, indeed, an honour and a privilege to immerse myself in this music – a visionary blend of Appalachian and Chinese folk styles produced by two immensely talented ladies. 

It is no understatement to suggest that this album has the potential to deliver a seismic impact to the World Music genre equal to that delivered by Graceland or Buena Vista Social Club.  Every track on this album represents a fascinating, seamless merger of two seemingly disparate but, in fact, highly compatible music styles to achieve a product that is, from beginning to end, a sheer delight.

The name of Abigail Washburn may be familiar to some readers; she has been around for some 15 years having produced, along the way, a string of solo albums, each of which demonstrate to a greater or lesser extent, her fascination with Chinese culture.  A native of Evanston, Illinois, she originally intended to train as a lawyer, with the goal of bettering US-China relations; thankfully, at some point along that road she decided that those relations would be better served by her skill with a banjo, rather than with a statute book.  An admirable assessment and particularly apt at a time when another member of the great American nation is attempting to blame his own helplessness and inadequacy on China!

Hailing from Beijing, Wu Fei was a childhood musical prodigy; she trained as a composer at the China Conservatory of Music and grew to become recognised as one of the most accomplished musicians in China.  After studying for her Masters’ degree at Mills College in California, Wu Fei settled in the US, eventually discovering bluegrass music and linking up with Abigail in Boulder, Colorado.  “Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn” is the duo’s debut collaboration.

The album features just two instruments; Abigail’s expressive banjo and Wu Fei’s ghuzeng – a Chinese zither with a wonderful tonal range.  The two instruments weave together delightfully and provide all the backing necessary to support the girls’ voices, which switch effortlessly from English to Chinese and back and which often sing the two languages simultaneously and harmoniously.  Great effort has gone into identifying songs and tunes from the two diverse traditions which cover the same subject matter and then into melding those songs into a series of cohesive pieces – The Roving Cowboy/Avarguli and Water Is Wide/Wusuli Boat Song are particular examples of such crafting but, in reality, the album bursts with similar such examples.

Normally, when reviewing an album, I like to pick out tracks that I found to be particularly enjoyable or unusual but, in the case of this album, it’s impossible to do so – every song or tune is a highlight.  From the opener – the aforementioned Water Is Wide/Wusuli Boat Song – via the playful Ping Tan Dance, in which the girls release their Angry Ol’ Gramma personae, the call-and-answer Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girls, and the secretly derisive Who Says Women Aren’t As Good As Men to the album’s closer, the girls’ take on Hazel Dickens’s Pretty Bird, this album thrills, and the blended sound of the banjo and guzheng never palls.  The enjoyment of the album is greatly aided by the extensive and informative sleeve notes which explain the derivation of each of the songs and provide fascinating snippets of underlying detail.

It is, indeed, rare to hear an album for the first time and realise immediately that you are listening to something that will change your outlook on music, but this is one such album. The album’s press release states that the work is a testament to the connective power of music across seemingly disparate cultures – I honestly couldn’t agree more. This album is, unquestionably, a masterpiece and a huge musical milestone.

You can pre-order this truly stunning album here.

Wu Fei: Official Website / Facebook

Abigail Washburn: Official Website / Facebook

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