Singing in Mandarin is difficult. On top of actually being able to hit the proper notes, Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that if you’re not careful with the way you speak, you could be saying one thing when you actually mean the other. Maybe this is a major reason why most of the popular songs in Taiwan and China are usually simple, straightforward ballads that follow a simple melody–why make things harder than it has to be?
But what happens when you deviate from those making your tones crystal-clear? It’s a risky trade-off–your song becomes unintelligible to native speakers, and your song will probably not be a very popular pick during karaoke night. But on the other hand, you get to try more exciting sounds and experimental singing styles in your music. The only person, to my knowledge, who has done this successfully in pop music is Ann 白安. Although she’s speaking Mandarin in her songs, the way she sings makes her Mandarin near-unintelligible upon first listen, morphing her words so that they’re simply tones rather than language. To her, the Chinese language becomes another instrument, and to striking results. Although you don’t know what she’s saying, it’s pretty damn catchy when you combine it with a myriad of other, more traditional instruments.
In the underground scene, I think that the same could be said of Taiwanese indie-rock band 午夜乒乓 (Midnight Ping Pong), a band with a vocalist so striking that it’s a turn-off upon your first listen. 劉邦傑 (Liu Bang-jie), the lead vocalist, has a nice voice that is all over the place. Liu sounds slightly off-key when he sings, but it’s the one quality that makes him one of the most underrated vocalists in the scene. Take a listen to their most popular song, 青春劇烈物. If you’ve clicked over from a pop song, at first you might think Liu is tone-deaf. But on your second or third time through, you’ll realise that the way he’s singing is intentional; he’s using his voice as a rough instrument, just like Ann白安 does with hers. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and that’s what makes Midnight Ping Pong such a fun band to listen to.
What’s more exciting is that Liu is able to be consistent in the way he sings even in another language. On “Sunset Dance”, the only English/Mandarin song that Midnight Ping Pong has released so far, Liu is free from those tonal shackles since he sings in English, but he continues to be slightly off-key. On the chorus, he sings, “I dreamed of a scene / I’m searching for a path of my own / Baby please don’t cry / I’m on the way home maybe tomorrow”. It’s a hopeful piece, one about finding himself–a story that we can truly believe in thanks to the raw, uncontrolled timbre of his voice. Even when he dives into the Mandarin segment of the lyrics it’s the same: “流浪 (Wandering) / 我們的家在路上 (Our home is on the road) / 偶爾跌傷 (Occasionally falling) / 偶爾絕望 (Occasionally despair) / 但我們沒忘 (But we have not forgotten)”. “Sunset Dance” is a song only made more powerful by the unique, unpolished way that Liu sings it. Add onto that the energetic guitar solo and some solid drum work from the rest of the band, and you’ve got yourself something unforgettable.
“Sunset Dance” was released on Midnight Ping Pong’s debut LP 劇烈物語, which was released in 2016. They will be following it up with an EP later this year.
Check out “Sunset Dance” on our Indie playlist!