There is something that does not make sense. I took a break from falling and flailing on a snowboard in Hokkaido, Japan to review Formosa Medicine Show by the Muddy Basin. Light snow was drifting down outside as I huddled next to the heater to stay warm. White fluffy powdery snow blanketed everything in this small skiing village. Holidaymakers (mostly Australian) dragged their feet cautiously along the hard packed snow-lined pavements. Listening to this album named after semi-tropical Taiwan then should feel strange and out of context. However, it did not feel weird at all.
There is something that does not make sense. The Muddy Basin Ramblers exists as a proto-rock and roll jug band based in k-pop/idol-crap/post-rock/shoegazing Taiwan. The music they play harks to swing jazz, delta blues, and old Chinese classics. Against modern musical trends, the Muddy Basin Ramblers are decidedly dated in the 1900s to 1950s in terms of musical styles. The band also sticks quite religiously to its chosen genre. A jug band uses makeshift instruments – everything and anything that makes a good sound is used. The Muddy Basin Ramblers’ bassist uses a washtub bass, which is a plastic washtub sourced from the local markets with a stick and string. The percussionist scrapes on a sawtooth washboard and literally bangs on pots and pans. Muddy Basin Ramblers also chose to use vintage recording technologies despite access to modern technological wizardry. Why date themselves?
There is something that does not make sense. To me, Formosa Medicine Show can be viewed as a concept album devoted to the idea of the “medicine show” as applied to Taiwan in a bygone era. What if the music and entertainment from the medicine shows from lore grew out of Taiwan in its initial multicultural glories? What would the music sound like? What would the lyrics be about? How can such a concept album spawn an appeal that cut across generations, cultures and walks of life? How can the concept of the album come across clearly as performed by a band that comprises mostly of foreigners living in Taiwan? How can this ambition even be initially conceived and realised?
This should not make sense. But it makes perfect sense.
There were three smart perfectly sensible things that Muddy Basin Ramblers did.
First, in using musical styles of 1900s to 1950s, the Muddy Basin Ramblers are smart in not having to educate listeners to new forms of music. These styles have been floating around for decades. It is easier to accept ragtime than, say, post-metal. Their strict adherence to jug band principles of using everyday objects as instruments and to recording using real vintage era technology meant that the recording sounded like it came from that era. The sense of nostalgia is real as the equipment used is real.
In addition, the reworking of traditional tunes into the overall context of Formosa Medicine Show worked to retrospectively date the album and provide a sense of security through familiarity. Medicine Show Song and Okinawa Mama contained traditional tunes that old-timers would recognise. The obvious nod to old Chinese classics is the retrofitted Teng Yu-hsien’s classic Wang Chun Feng (望春風) which is a song that almost all Chinese, young and old, would recognise. It is the song that my mother would hum as she busied herself around the household.
Second, the Muddy Basin Ramblers place their musical style into a familiar Taiwanese context. That is why Formosa Medicine Show makes sense even on a skiing vacation in whited out Hokkaido. It is not the surrounding context that gives the album its meaning. It is the listener who gives the context to the album. For example, I related to Coolie’s Song as I am a direct descendant from a son of the South China Sea. Taiwanese audiences can easily form images of betel nut girls and neon palm trees referenced in Island Love Song #3. In an interesting play with style and lyrics, Free China converts the familiar hillbilly tune into a story about Chinese immigrant workers building the railways, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek.
How did they pull it off? David Chen, the ringleader of the Muddy Basin Ramblers, highlighted that while the band members are all foreigners, they have been in Taiwan for “a very very very long time”. They know which buttons to push – how to create that sense of warmth and connection (in chinese, 親切感). David also explained that their songs are all love songs. The “I love her but she does not love me” theme is a universal one, and especially prevalent in Taiwanese popular culture.
Third, the Muddy Basin Ramblers are masters at making their music fun and engaging. Fast catchy songs like China Doll, Banana-nap and Typhoon Sue provide the perfect soundtrack for dancing and grooving. At any of their live gigs, you will see young couples swinging, children listening intently, old folks nodding their approval to nostalgia. With masterful storytelling in songs like Honey Babe, the Muddy Basin Ramblers engage the audience with tragic tales of abusing husbands, love lost, and Princess Lotus Blossom (read the liner notes). The execution of the songs in the album is flawless. The tones feel authentically dated in their respective eras. The singing (especially Mojo’s guest vocals on Honey Babe) is soulful. All these add up to engaging fun music which sucks one in and makes one forget the present.
The medicine shows of old used entertainment and a lot of fast talking to sell folk remedies. There is definitely a lot of entertainment packed into this album (23 songs worth!). With so much entertainment, what then are the Muddy Basin Ramblers selling?
Then I realised. During the Muddy Basin Ramblers’ gig at Simple Market, my seven-year old son asked if he can have some money to buy the Formosa Medicine Show CD.