Traditional Chinese Music In Her DNA, Min Xiao-Fen Brings Western Daring To Her Asheville Move

Jun 15, 2021

Min Xiao-Fen creates music blending Chinese tradition with Western modernism.
Credit Scott Friedlander

When you think of musicians made for Asheville, Min Xiao-Fen doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. Min grew up in a musical family in Nanjing, China, became a virtuoso of the pipa and performed as a soloist for over a decade with traditional Chinese orchestras.

“I feel lost a little bit in China. Everything’s controlled, China’s system. Even when you play music, you have to play exactly as master taught you how to play. You have to be very controlled, disciplined,” Min said. “I just feel I want a change. I wanted to go to other countries to see if maybe I could change my career. I don’t really know what I want. I just thought maybe I could find something for myself.”

She spent four years during the early '90s in San Francisco, where she performed for the first time with modern, Western ensembles, and then to New York City, where the composer John Zorn saw her perform at the famed Knitting Factory and invited her to record for his label.

Zorn wanted her to record with the avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey. Min recalls recording with Bailey and his guitar string breaking mid-song.

“For me, I was thinking we’d stop, just do it again, but he didn’t. He just grabbed the string and scrape on the frets. After that, I felt those musicians can use anything, they can create anything,” she said. “After this experience, I have a little bit of confidence, throw away tradition and think about that moment on stage, how to create the music. Now, I actually enjoy this spontaneous change.”

Min’s 2012 album “Dim Sum” was the first featuring her own compositions. She performs a range of string and percussion instruments, along with vocals. Min lists Miles Davis as an inspiration for her song “Blue Pipa.” It’s a teaser to an album Min made five years later devoted to fusing her Eastern sounds and stylings into the music of Thelonious Monk.

“I always say, myself, I’m a downtown musician, I’m an avant garde musician,” she said. “Of course, traditional music is always in my heart. I just want to always blend the Chinese tradition, combine with all genres. That’s my purpose.”

Her newest project is composing and recording a score to a 1934 Chinese silent film titled “The Goddess.” Min said the film tells the story a young mother who turns to sex work for an income. 

“I feel she has a good heart, which is why I created the music, used the Buddhist chanting and also a lot of voice, combined with electronic loops, surrounding her, to show her purity,” she said of the soundtrack, titled “White Lotus.” “I just used simple notes to show her innocence.”

Min and guitarist Rez Abbasi are performing the entire soundtrack, titled “White Lotus,” against the backdrop of the movie “The Goddess” June 30 at the Orange Peel.

Min flourished in New York’s scene for outsider music, so her move with her husband to Asheville at the beginning of this year is curious, until she mentions her appreciation for Delta blues icon John Lee Hooker and Americana music. Her entire family is still in China, but Min said they support her career, if not always understand her musical choices. 

“I’m a Asheville citizen now,” she said. “I love bluegrass and I love the blues, so someday, I’m going to go looking for some people to work together. I can always find some new partners, some new projects to perform here too.”