Credit: Courtesy Wu Fei/Salvation South
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece often talks about how cultures from around the world have integrated into the culture of the American South. In this week's commentary, Chuck looks at a truly unique and harmonious marriage of bluegrass picking with the music of China direct from Nashville of course.
Chuck Reece: I talk about the culture of the American South here every Friday, and if you listen regularly, you know there is a drum I consistently beat. I just love the how absorptive Southern culture is — how it takes in new influences and changes as new people make this place their home. Now, centuries ago, Southern music absorbed one of its many undeserved gifts— an African instrument called the banjo. That instrument became part and parcel of the music we know as bluegrass. Like this:
MUSIC: Earl Scruggs – “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
Chuck Reece: That’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by the legendary North Carolina picker Earl Scruggs. Keep that melody in your mind for a minute while we fast-forward to the 21st century.
A few decades ago, a little girl named Wu Fei became a musical prodigy in her home city of Beijing, China. The instrument she played was the guzheng. That’s G-U-Z-H-E-N-G. The guzheng is two-thousand years old, and it is plucked, just like a banjo. But where the banjo typically has five strings, the guzheng has either 21, 25 or 26 strings. And it is five feet four inches long.
Wu Fei first studied in Beijing at the China Conservatory of Music, learning the very strict repertoire of Chinese classical. In 2002, when she was 25, she came to America to study music at Mills College in California. Thirteen years later, she settled with her husband and children in Nashville, Tenn., where she met a modern-day banjo virtuoso named Abigail Washburn. As fate would have it, Washburn had lived in China for a while after college and had become fluent in Mandarin.
So, these two string-plucking women began to make music together, and in 2020, they released an album. I could try to describe it, but it’s better that you listen to a few seconds of it.
MUSIC: Wu Fei and Abigal Washburn – “Banjo Guzheng Pickin' Girls (天涯海角走一遍)”
Chuck Reece: That song has a wonderful title: “Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girls.” And every Southerner I know would say that music sounds awfully familiar. It’s basically bluegrass, but with the extra magic of 26 more strings. You might ever call it the “Everest Mountain Breakdown.”
Rob Rushin-Knopf, who writes about music for Salvation South, the online magazine I edit, first told me about Wu and her music. And I’ve just been delighted to listen to it and publish Rob’s story about her.
I think Wu Fei is a shining example of the fact that Southern culture can be as absorptive as a good sponge. When we are at our best, our culture can welcome anyone from anywhere, as long as they bring their talents and their heart.
Come read more about and listen to more from Wu Fei at SalvationSouth.com.
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.