By James KeastIn the middle of an open field, you can hear music from everywhere, particularly the DJ stage situated in the centre. Almost 200 bands have gathered here to play on seven stages, each only about 100 metres from the next, causing sound to bleed all over. For veteran music fans, it's a familiar scene: scantily clad women offer Red Bull and vodka, dreadlocked white hippies entrance themselves with their spin-dancing, and if you don't like a given band, more options are only an aimless wander away.
But this is not your typical summer music festival. Exclaim! TV producer Sam Sutherland and I are at Spring Scream in Kenting, a tourist town on the southern tip of Taiwan. We're here to scout independent Taiwanese bands for a late-summer Canadian tour. But we're not finding much to like. It's our second day, and we've heard more rap-rock, cheesy keyboards and mainstream-aping radio friendly sounds than we've willingly exposed ourselves to in years. We're alternately disheartened by a lack of enthusiasm and shamed by the hardcore music snobbery we've revealed in ourselves.
But high on a hill, one of the last shows of the night is the sound of hope, of change, and of a future for independent music in Taiwan. The sound is Kou Chou Ching, a hard-spitting hip-hop crew who built their backing tracks not from vintage American R&B but from Taiwanese and aboriginal music. As they rap in Mandarin and Taiwanese, we quickly abandon attempted simultaneous translation, but one moment is striking. Near the end of the set, Kou Chou Ching lead the gathered in an enthusiastic chant: "Taiwan! Taiwan! Taiwan!" At the time, Sam and I see it as a curious, perhaps anachronistic moment of nationalism, like American sports fans who chant "U!S!A!" But we'll soon realize this is a powerful moment for indie culture, for music, and for a country in transition.
Spring Scream was founded 16 years ago by North American ex-pats, Jimi Moe and Wade Davis, as a party of and for friends. "Taiwan had a big music scene in the '80s and '90s but it was all cover bands," Davis explains. "An indie/underground music scene, like we were used to back home, was almost non-existent."
"The first time we came down here, we brought a couple of other bands who'd never left [Taiwan's capital Taipei]," Moe adds. "Every band had another friend band, it ended up being ten bands and maybe 200 people." The event has since exploded to the point that there were at least five other rival music festivals around Kenting on this weekend ― they're universally referred to as "Spring Scream," although only Wade and Jimi's event retains the untainted, DIY feel of its original inspiration.
"When we first started, there were maybe ten bands on the island who were attempting to play original music," Davis says. "Now there are thousands. We were able to watch and be a part of the music scene growing up here."
A brief historical overview is required to understand the context of Taiwan's creative communities. Taiwan was ceded to China in a post-WWII agreement with Japan, and was placed under martial law following the Chinese civil war in 1949. It maintained a tenuous balance of maintaining economic ties to China while preserving its own rich ethnic and cultural heritage, and through lobbying and political agitation, Taiwan shed martial law and became a democracy in the late 1980s. Yet Taiwan is not an independent country in the eyes of the world, and remains unrecognized by the United Nations and other Western powers; as a "nation" of sorts, they do have an international presence, like in the Olympics, where they compete as the Republic of China (not to be confused with the communist People's Republic of China). Taiwan retains a significant amount of economic and political independence from mainland China, but is in many ways a land without status. Among increasingly politicized Taiwanese youth, these issues are prime ― and they've got the hands-on political experience to back them up.
The seriousness of these issues becomes blindingly clear when we return to Taipei (about a two hour bullet train ride to the northern part of this island, which houses Canada's population in an area about the size of Vancouver Island) and sit down with Kou Chou Ching mastermind Fan Chiang. Censorship of not just culture but free speech itself ended only 20 years ago, within the lifetimes of most current Taiwanese musicians. "It's more free now," Chiang tells us. "You can sing about whatever you want. But before, if you sang about [Taiwanese political issues] you'd just disappear." In fact, Chiang tells us that if he gave the same interview 20 years ago, not only would he "disappear" immediately but as journalists from the West, so would we.
Even the name Taiwan is discouraged by mainland China; that name ― and the name given to it by Portuguese settlers several hundred years ago, Formosa ("beautiful" in Portuguese) ― Taiwan has become a shorthand for those who fight for independence for this proud nation. Chiang encouraging that Spring Scream crowd to chant "Taiwan" and "Formosa" was a more significantly political act than we realized in the moment.