[7 December 2011]
A Moving Sound “has very earthy songs,” Mia Hsieh explains in the track notes, “like ‘The Market Song’ or ‘Toh Deh Gong’, which is a modern talking song, like rap.”
As a piece of shorthand, as a language-bridge from one culture to another, this album is interesting for the ground it covers and the ground it doesn’t – for the way it tackles the challenge of simplification – the challenge of explaining yourself quickly, in limited space, to an audience that might be bored – you don’t know – and apprehensive. What is this “Toh Deh Gong” thing?, they ask. What can I expect? Oh hell, you sigh. How can I explain myself? Rap, maybe?
Those two songs are high-pitched and cute-sounding, with a scolding, teasing playful tone, and it seems unlikely that anyone raised on English-language music would come across them one day out of the blue and think, “That reminds me of rap,” or even, “That sounds earthy.” Once you’ve had it described in Hsieh’s words you can see the ideas that might have helped her to come up with those descriptions, oh, the people talk rather than sing, their speech is rapid and emphatic, and there’s a call and response there, between a male singer and a group of women. If you can’t understand the lyrics then you can take her word for it that the language is earthy, practical rather than poetic, maybe sexual, but the choppiness is a sharp Chinese choppiness, upward-inflected, not the more downward and sombre US rap inflection, while the chorus goes la la-la la la la like a troop of flower girls and a mood-lightening erhu hops along in the upper atmosphere—then the same flower girls chime, “Heeeeey!” Wooden clappers pop like happy fireworks. The Western idea of earthy is just not here, it’s not near here at all. It would be equally accurate to call “Toh Deh Gong” a gospel song, since they’re singing about a god. “The Earth God of Wealth and Merit, Uncle Toh De Gong,” the translation runs, “holding a cane in your right hand and an ingot in your left hand. Toh Deh Po comes to keep you company ...”
But it sounds nothing like anything that anyone who speaks English would understand as gospel.
So we can assume that the intent here is not to describe the actual sound of the song but to summon up a kind of familiarity. It’s a rap song, it’s earthy, you might be singing it yourself if you had been born in a different place, speaking a different language, listen, somewhere, at the bottom, we are you, and here are your own thoughts translated, sort of.
Hsieh’s parents moved from mainland China to Taiwan in the middle of last century, fleeing the civil war between the Communists and the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. Later their daughter spent six months in New York City on a Fulbright scholarship. There she met Scott Prairie, an American composer who came with her back to Taiwan where they founded A Moving Sound. The music, in spite of this collaboration, is more Chinese than American – Taiwanese or Chinese with foreign ideas, rather than an even-handed mixture. Sometimes, as in “Market Song”, the idea of the West fades away entirely, but sometimes it steps forward, and then you have a song like “Howling Wind”, which starts with an instrumental scream that seems brilliantly near-human, and melts down to gaze at its American shoe while Hsieh sings about the 228 Incident of 1947, the mass-murder by the Kuomintang government of thousands of Taiwanese citizens. The two sounds playing with one another are so striking that there’s a chunk of me wishing they’d make an album of this.
Foreign touches, when they come, are not always Western. The zhong ruan in “Flying Dombra” borrows its gallop from Kazakhstan, and anyone who’s spent time listening to Central Asian music will recognise it – that long charge across the open plain. Here’s the high point of “earthiness” on the album, the most direct and muscular sound, but they sweeten it with a tingle of candied bells, lightening their earth and making it astral. High and sweet are the keynotes on A Moving Sound, and quick and quicksilver.