ABOUT THE FORMOSA MEDICINE SHOW
The "Formosa Medicine Show" is a record about hucksters, vagabonds and itinerant musicians traveling throughout Asia, particularly Taiwan, from the early 1900s to the 1950s. In writing the music for the album, the Ramblers' bandleader, singer-songwriter David Chen, blends historical fiction with musical genres of the times, connecting the medicine show tradition in America with Taiwan's own. The result is a 23-song collection of quirky, heartfelt and humorous stories delivered by infectious melodies and grooves spanning a variety of musical styles, from blues, swing, ragtime and hillbilly to sea shanties, Okinawan folk and Jazz-Age Taiwanese pop.
Traveling medicine shows were the prime form of folk entertainment in America from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, and thrived in rural areas even through the 1950s. The shows were run by self-professed "Doctors," who were often really just actors or musicians who sold fake remedies and sundries to unsuspecting people. People who knew better derided the doctors as "quacks," but they stuck around at the shows for the entertainment. Many medicine shows used music to attract a crowd; the popular medicine shows were one of the few venues where one might see a hillbilly band, a jazz band and a Native American drama and dance performance in the same setting. In Taiwan, there's a similar tradition of traveling shows.
With "Formosa Medicine Show," the Ramblers also pay tribute to popular entertainment in "Ihla Formosa"
(the name used for Taiwan by the Portuguese in the 1500s) by doing a swing jazz version of the classic song "Wang Chun Feng." While most of the songs are rooted in American sounds, the band brings in Asian elements into the music, with Taiwanese musician Chung Yufeng making a guest appearance on several songs, playing the Sanhsin (a three-stringed banjo from Okinawa) and the Chinese pipa.
The Ramblers also called on other friends from the music community in Taiwan to make guest appearances on the Formosa Medicine Show. Thomas Hu of Skaraoke plays bass trombone and sings on several tracks; Eddie Lin (林子耘), co-founder of the National Taiwan University Jazz Club, plays piano on a handful of songs; Sylvain Chen of the Dark Eyes Gypsy Jazz Band joined the band on double bass for one number, and guitarist Duncan Cameron of the now-defunct old-timey acoustic band Tarrybush joins the band for a bluegrass number. And another outstanding collaborator has been Canadian singer-songwriter Marie-Josée "Mojo" Laviolette, who sings on several tracks on the album and features on a solo acoustic piece.
ABOUT THIS RECORDING
The music we play is proto-rock n' roll, so we tried to capture a similar sound by using the same technology from the era. Following recording techniques used mostly before the 1950s, we cut all of the songs live using a vintage, RCA-style microphone circa 1940s-50s (a Japanese-made copy of the Type 44-BX), restored radio equipment from the 1930s (an RCA preamp rebuilt to OP-6 specs) and a relatively modern reel-to-reel tape machine beloved among filmmakers and field recordists (a Nagra IV-S -- as Slim likes to call it, "Star Wars" technology!).
We sought to achieve an "old-time" sound, but with modern high fidelity -- the good stuff you get from a 78rpm record, but with fewer scratches and less noise. We relied on the magic of computers and ones and zeroes to keep our editing options open and to sneak in a few overdubs (we're not do-or-die vintage purists). But at its heart, the Formosa Medicine Show is full of analog love. At the end of the day, our main goal in using old school techniques was to capture the energy and atmosphere that makes Ramblers' performances unique and fun.
ABOUT THE MUDDY BASIN RAMBLERS
Some hear blues, others hear jazz, some think it's country, others call it hillbilly swing. The Muddy Basin Ramblers don't care what you name it. They just love to play. The Ramblers draw inspiration from jug bands, blues songsters, string bands and swing jazz groups from the early 20th century, breathing fresh attitude into these classic sounds.
Imagine if wandering minstrels in America's medicine show era wound up in Asia, and you have the spirit of the Ramblers, a group of six US and UK expatriates living in Taipei, Taiwan. The band strives for authenticity in its hot swing and jug band grooves, but the energy of their music comes from their lives on "Ihla Formosa," with its mix of vibrant modernism, quaint tradition and a carefree attitude that goes hand-in-hand with island life.
The band has always played a classic repertoire, whether it's songs by delta blues great Charlie Patton, jug band/medicine show legends Gus Cannon and the Memphis Jug Band or Jelly Roll Morton. Nowadays the Ramblers are focusing on performing original material, showcased on their latest double-length album released in October 2013, the "Formosa Medicine Show."
The Ramblers' unique concoction of swing, traditional jazz, string band and blues also incorporates music from other "worlds." From the band, one will also hear sounds from the Pacific Islands, Taiwanese temple music, Japanese Nakashi melodies and an occasional gypsy tune. Anything goes, as long as it makes people smile and move. Their sweet "noise" comes from an assortment of string, brass, and homemade instruments, which include kazoos, a ceramic jug, a washboard and a washtub bass.
Like any band worth its salt, the Ramblers derive their name from geography. The "Muddy Basin" refers to the band's adopted home and city, tucked within the Taipei Basin. A mutual love for roots music and making "homemade jam" to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life brought together the band members, who are all long-term residents of Taipei and enthusiasts of Chinese language and culture.
The Ramblers never fail to attract and then keep a crowd's attention, with their array of instruments and penchant for good-natured mischief. They've played on all kinds of stages, from festivals and pubs to parties and public parks, and have shared the stage with a wide range of artists: the talented Canadian singer-songwriter Dana Wylie, Taiwanese folk singer and protest music icon Lin Sheng-xiang, Okinawan musician Takashi Hirayasu, and acclaimed American blues artist Nathan James. The Ramblers were also pleased and honored to be Michelle Shocked's backing band when she played in Taipei in 2005.
Having fun has always been the top priority for the band, but they have also come to be regarded as accomplished musicians in Taiwan. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist David Chen and harmonica player Conor Prunty shared a Golden Melody Award, Taiwan's highest music honor, with folk singer Lo Sirong, as well as the Golden Indie Music award for best folk album of 2012 for their record "The Flowers Beckon".
The Muddy Basin Ramblers were formed in 2002 by David, who originally hails from Chillicothe, Ohio, and includes members Tim Hogan, of California, on washboard and percussion; TC Lin, originally from the US but now a proud Taiwanese citizen, on washtub bass, baritone, and trumpet; Sandy Murray, of Scotland, on ukulele and tenor and soprano saxophones, Conor Prunty, of London, on harmonica, washtub bass, and ukulele; and Will "Slim" Thelin, from Omaha, Nebraska, on jug, tap shoes, kazoos, trombone, and vocals.
Throughout the years, the Ramblers consider themselves fortunate to have worked with talented friends, including the aforementioned Dana Wylie and violinist-turned-professional-adventure-seeker Zoe Moffat. The band is now pleased to be collaborating with Eddie Lin, a young and talented jazz pianist from Taipei, and Canadian singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Marie-Josée "Mojo" Laviolette, both of whom feature on the Ramblers' latest record.
The group's self-titled debut CD has delighted fans and music lovers all over the world, and has become a cult classic among fans in Taipei. In 2013, the band members have outdone themselves with the release of "Formosa Medicine Show," a 23-song extravaganza of almost all original songs.