A lady with a banjo, a Chinese zither player, and a guy carrying a keyboard and a trumpet walk into a bar.
That may sound like the setup of one of your dad's jokes, but Abigail Washburn, Wu Fei and Kai Welch, who make up The Wu-Force, are serious about the genre-hopping music they create together. But not deadly serious: "Hopefully, people spend a lot of time laughing at our shows," Washburn tells the Scene from her home in Nashville.
Throughout her career, banjo scholar Washburn has explored the similarities between Appalachian and Chinese folk music, drawing freely from both palettes on 2011's critically acclaimed City of Refuge. Among many others, the album features contributions from Welch, a multi-instrumentalist and master pop music arranger who grew up immersed in grunge-era indie rock, and Ms. Wu, who studied traditional Chinese and Western music from an early age, with special emphasis on a 21-string zither called the guzheng ("goo-chung") that's been part of Chinese music for some 2,500 years.
As The Wu-Force, the trio blends these traditions in unexpected combinations, seeking first to make interesting and expressive music. There's no album yet, but their public demos include "Han Ren," a piece that puts Wu's mellifluous folk-style vocals alongside Washburn's mountain clogging and Welch's muted trumpet. File that next to "Muckrakers," an indie-punk meditation on progress and industrialism, centered on Welch's voice and guitar, punctuated by kaleidoscopic guzheng glissandos and Wu and Washburn shouting "This is mine, not yours!" in Chinese.
With these songs and the others they've been brewing in advance of their spring tour — starting with a show Thursday, Jan. 9, at The High Watt, and centered around an appearance at globalFest in New York and recording sessions with producer Erick Jaskowiak — the group also hopes to practice cultural diplomacy at a grassroots level between the U.S. and China. That can be a difficult prospect, since there are fundamental differences between the cultures that make basic communication almost as much a challenge as playing the instruments in tune with one another.
"In Chinese, there is a preference for people to think about themselves in relation to others — their meaning in the world is tied to this web of people," explains Washburn, who speaks Mandarin, the particular dialect of Chinese (out of dozens used across the country's 1.36 billion citizens) used in government communications and the official press. "I can't translate an English sentence literally into Chinese and have it make sense to anyone. I have to think in terms of Chinese culture and Chinese relationship patterns."
China's internal attitude toward independent artists, reflecting the Communist government's increasingly difficult balancing act with its largely capitalist economy, poses its own difficulties. Though she currently lives in her native Beijing, Wu Fei spent many years in the U.S., earning an M.A. in composition from Mills College and working with John Zorn and other experimental art musicians in New York. She tells the Scene via email that musicians who work for state-owned institutions in China can earn a comfortable living, but are never allowed to choose what they play, while independent musicians' freedom comes at the price of financial and social security, including issues with respect for copyright and censorship.
The ever-suspicious government, responsible for the well-publicized crackdown on artist and architect Ai Weiwei, even cast its eye abroad, scrutinizing Wu's participation in a Chinese-European cultural exchange festival. Chinese officials questioned festival organizers about Wu's citizenship. "If I was a U.S. citizen," they warned, "I would not be qualified to represent Chinese culture and should not be invited. This was despite the fact that I was the musician from China in the festival, who played a traditional Chinese instrument."
However, protest songs and other methods of traditional activism won't help solve China's problems, nor advance our relations with the Chinese, according to Kai Welch. "I would rather help tell the stories of different people in China, to put my own reactions to the extreme different-ness of China and other places into songs, and above all, to provoke thought about the ways in which we humanoids are really kindred all over the world."
In the end, the effort to make the connections through art is worthwhile, because it allows bonds to form face to face.
"Music really points out whether or not you can hear other people — hear what they're playing, and react to it in a way that brings harmony," explains Washburn.
She describes regular meetings with local musicians when she tours in China, focusing on one elderly man who plays the erhu (a bowed, stringed instrument about the size of a cello) in his local orchestra and was concerned that their music would be in no way compatible. "We started playing one chord with a slow rhythm, and asked him to play a melody on top of it," says Washburn. "He did, and before you know it, he was looking up with this big smile. We were all smiling and playing together, brought together completely by this possibility of the soundscape we could create."