Photos courtesy of Jeff Fasano

Crossovers between musical styles can capture the essence of seemingly disparate worlds and create something new entirely. There’s a vibrant synergy where infectious pop hooks meet the power of rock ‘n’ roll electric guitars, or where the rhythmic beats of hip-hop combine with the narrative storytelling of country music. Other collaborations reach even further, beyond standard ideas or genres to forge unique expressions of creative and cultural exploration.

From China to Appalachia is one such project. Grammy-winning folk musicians Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have joined forces with Chinese classical hammer dulcimer virtuoso Chao Tian to create an eclectic blend of traditional Appalachian and Chinese music. The process flexes the creative muscles of all three musicians, combining the sounds of the classic banjo, cello banjo, ukulele, guitar and mandolin with Chao’s dulcimer, while also using their voices to sing and tell cross-cultural stories.

“Chao doesn’t seem to have to work very hard at playing our old time music, but I have to work really hard at playing Chinese music on old time banjo,” Cathy joked. “Marcy is so talented playing cello banjo, which gives a beautiful, rounded, deep sound to the group. I feel like we’re really hitting our stride and upping the game on all the things that we can do together.”

With over 500,000 views on TikTok, the trio draws diverse audiences from across the nation to experience their unique sound live. The stories from fans have poured in: a pair driving five and a half hours from Ohio after discovering them on TikTok; a devoted fan from West Virginia took a chance, hoping to secure a ticket from the waitlist; his twin brother, unable to get in, still tuned into the show outside through a TikTok live stream.

“It tells me that we’re offering something that is of interest to a multi-generational and multi-cultural audience,” Cathy said. “You know, where else on TikTok are people going to hear something this sort of out of the box, not normal? There are Chinese people who come to our shows and they’re like, ‘I never thought I’d hear this music in this country.’ In a collaboration like this, that’s so important.”

The trio is excited to see this type of music reach unconventional audiences through TikTok, because it also encourages the exploration of other artists who push the boundaries in similar ways.

“We’re not the only people to have done this type of collaboration,” Marcy said. “Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei have a beautiful sound together. Rhiannon Giddens has taken the Silk Road group in a way that morphs her Appalachian sounds with the music of the Silk Road, but I think we all have a place and we all offer something.”

The concept for From China to Appalachia was born out of a shared passion for exploring the diverse musical backgrounds of their colleagues. Cathy and Marcy, a musical duo with over 40 years of partnership, joined forces with Chao when she became a new artist-in-residence at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD, where Cathy has been a mentor-in-residence for over 15 years.

Chao grew up training in Chinese and Western classical music at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing, but had never experienced the improvisational world that the duo pulled her into. Having come to the U.S. in 2015 when she began her residency at Strathmore, Chao initially began playing with the trio to become more acclimated to performing and presenting her music to American audiences.

“We just had this idea of putting together a show called From China to Appalachia, and I think it partly came from the fact that every time we sat down to play music together, we would find sounds from American old time music that seemed to overlap with similar sounds and songs that Chao knew from China.”

Collaboration lies at the heart of the group’s dynamic. Cathy and Marcy seamlessly weave their Appalachian and folk roots with Chao’s Chinese dulcimer, telling musical stories that transcend borders. Their rehearsals and performances are a testament to the power of musical synergy, where each member’s contribution enhances the overall sound.

“Chao brings Chinese music that not only meshes really beautifully with the music that we naturally play together, but they have really beautiful stories behind the songs,” Cathy said. “They’re very human stories, very heart-to-heart stories, and it’s impossible for an American audience not to be able to really relate to this music.”

As their musical collaboration matures, their understanding and appreciation for each other’s cultures deepen as well. Chao shared that Cathy gave her a banjo tutorial for Christmas, sparking a new musical journey for her. In return, Cathy and Marcy delved into learning Chinese on Duolingo, demonstrating their mutual commitment to cultural exchange.

“I think that is a great testament to our collaboration,” Chao said.

From China to Appalachia goes beyond musical exploration to bridge two seemingly disparate cultures. The music reflects shared human experiences and emotions, highlighting what unites us across cultural divides.

“I think the best part of this process is that we emphasize seeking similarities,” Chao said. “In this intercultural musical collaboration, rather than looking at our differences, we care more about our commonalities in music — and actually at many different levels, we have a lot of commonalities.”

“The fun thing is that we all keep growing by finding,” Cathy said. “Music is a communication tool, and part of what we really want to do is remind people that we may look different, we may sound different, we may come from different places, but deep down, we’re all just people.”

As the journey continues, From China to Appalachia looks toward the future with excitement, with goals to reach China and beyond through performing and educational outreach. The group is currently recording an album and began the third leg of their U.S. tour in February at the Wintergrass Festival in Washington. Follow Cathy on TikTok at @cathybanjo or visit to stay up to date with all the group’s latest projects and performances!