How A Toddler's Imagination And The Election Led to Nashville Composer Wu Fei's New Collaboration | Nashville Public Radio

How A Toddler's Imagination And The Election Led to Nashville Composer Wu Fei's New Collaboration

Feb 10, 2017

The first Halloween after Beijing-born composer, performer and instrumentalist Wu Fei relocated with her family to Nashville, her young daughter Viola made a unique costume request: she wanted to be a “Batman Queen.”

Always up for a creative challenge, Fei scoured the internet to curate the perfect getup for her daughter, who was busy proclaiming everything she could accomplish as Batman Queen: rocket to outer space, defeat bad guys—you know, the usual undertakings of a three-year-old. 

As her daughter got a little older, Fei noticed the childlike magic of Batman Queen began to wear thin. Age, that inevitable bringer of self-doubt and skepticism, also brought a disappointing realization to Viola: she might not be a Batman Queen after all — but instead, a mere mortal.

Around the same time, two more puzzle pieces were falling into place for Fei. She was in conversation with Kelly Corcoran, director of contemporary Nashville ensemble Intersection, about a potential collaboration and commission. She was also looking for an artistic way to channel feelings she had after the 2016 presidential election.

From Fei’s reflections on both her daughter’s disappointment and everything happening in the country during this time, with particular concern for how the country’s political climate might affect her children, “If I Was A Batman Queen” emerged.

Fei cites her desire to preserve and promote all the all the emotions that her daughter felt during that first Halloween in Nashville: the energy, the curiosity, the purity, the hope, and the power of being a Batman Queen. Fei will premiere the piece during a family-friendly performance with Intersection on February 11 & 12, marking her latest collaboration with fellow Nashville artists.

Armed with a traditional Chinese instrument — a 21-stringed plucked zither called a guzheng — and an adventurous sensibility, Fei is an accomplished musician and composer in her own right.

But she is also known for her bold and creative collaborations. The day after her performances with Intersection, Fei will join long-time collaborator Abigail Washburn in the studio for a duo record, produced by Washburn’s husband, Béla Fleck.

Both Washburn and Fleck are renowned Nashville-based modern folk artist and banjoists, and part of the larger tradition that drew Fei to Nashville from Beijing in the first place. After years of avant-guard performances and improvisations, Fei felt drawn to the simplistic beauty of Appalachian melodies and harmonies.

“I love American folk traditions, and I knew there were some awesome pickers in Nashville,” Fei says, “and I thought I could bring my zither and pick with some of the best pickers.”

Abigail Washburn & Wu Fei
Credit Shervin Lainez /

With Washburn, though, the connection was even deeper than skilled picking. When the pair first met in 2006, Fei said they didn’t even need to speak a word. “I knew her folk songs, and she knew mine,” she described, adding that Washburn’s Chinese language skills and her deep connection with Chinese music — Washburn has performed extensively in China, and was recently named the first US-China Fellow at Vanderbilt University — made their collaboration a natural one.

A duo record is only one of the endeavors on the docket. The pair will continue a series of performances and workshops at local schools, supported by a grant from the Metro Nashville Arts Commission and culminating in a final public performance at OZ Arts this June. A nonprofit is in the works, designed to provide educational materials that will use music and language to celebrate diversity of cultures.

Fei and Washburn are also planning a performance for International Women’s Day on March 8th, as well as for the annual Southern Girls Rock Camp, a week-long program for teens to create music collaboratively in a culture of positive self-esteem.

In conversation, Fei refers to music as her “other baby” — a reminder that in addition to all her career endeavors, she is also a mother to little ones. With so much planned for 2017, she is truly a Superwoman… or, perhaps more appropriately, a Batman Queen.   

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn perform "Wusuli Boat Song/ The Water is Wide"