Taiwan Rising

Taiwan Rising
In 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.

Chiang has an astute understanding of political hip-hop that mirrors our own experience. "Now, it's the market that's suppressing this kind of expression ― people won't buy this kind of music. A lot of Taiwanese bands are short-sighted ― they don't see that in caring about social issues, you can still be successful." He cites not only his own musical inspiration, like Public Enemy, but other politically aware Western acts like U2 and Bob Dylan.

Kou Chou Ching make a political statement with their music by using traditional Taiwanese and aboriginal music in their production; they're the only Taiwanese hip-hop act doing so, and it's challenging for two reasons. "Taiwanese music is constructed totally differently than Western music," Chiang explains. "It takes time to understand the story within the music, and a lot of bands don't spend the time to unravel this. A lot of bands try to add traditional elements, but they're still thinking of a Western musical structure and adding Taiwanese elements like a traditional trumpet on top."

The other challenge is directly tied to the period of Chinese martial law, when the ruling class tried to abolish evidence of Taiwanese culture, including forcing the Taiwanese education system to teach only Mandarin. Thus finding source material to sample is itself an immense challenge. "Because of government censorship, a lot of traditional Taiwanese music recordings were destroyed, so it's difficult to find this original music."

Taiwan has long had a huge and successful domestic music scene, but it's dominated by Idol-style corporate creations that serve up easily digestible nuggets of pop confectionary. The DIY scene is tiny and marked by the enthusiasm and hard work of a handful of individuals so dedicated to music that they can't imagine doing anything else. Ground zero for these bands is White Wabbit Records in Taipei, which is where we meet Wu Yi-Chun (Brian, to his Western friends), the mastermind behind Aphasia, one of Taipei's best, most interesting bands.

Walking into White Wabbit Records is weird and disconcerting; it looks like Soundscapes or Zulu or any number of hip, independent Canadian record stores. Not the Taiwanese equivalent ― actually one of those stores. They stock Planet Smashers vinyl and the new Gentleman Reg album. Joanna Newsom posters hang from the wall. Less than two percent of their stock consists of bands from Taiwan. It's a store and a label owned and operated by KK, who also plays bass in Aphasia. Having grown from its roots (taking over a bathroom next to one of Taipei's few live venues, the Wall), they've expanded into this second location. They moved from selling second-hand CDs to importing music from around the world, and after befriending Canadian label Arts & Crafts, they helped bring Broken Social Scene to Taipei for the first time.

They've stocked the store with music they read about in Pitchfork and Exclaim! and their whole approach is pure DIY ― there are no precedents in Taiwan for indie labels or small-scale record stores. They're doing what they want however they can, but without mentors or guidance, as summed up by this exchange I have with KK during our interview: Is it common for bands to form a label to release their records? "No." Are there any others? "No." Do people think you're crazy? "Yes, many people say so."

KK defers Aphasia questions to Brian ― "He's a legend," she says ― and when he shows up, he shows us a scrapbook of himself as an activist teenager at free speech protests from the late '80s. Aphasia are an instrumental post-rock band in the vein of Explosions In the Sky. Brian writes all the songs, and records them in his basement studio, where he also produces and records the majority of Taipei independent bands. "Because Aphasia are an instrumental band, we don't reflect our political thinking in the lyrics," Brian explains. "Through simple notes, we want to stimulate people's thinking, instead of telling people how they should think."

Aphasia is a brain condition that takes away a person's ability to speak; when I first heard them (before coming to Taiwan), it seemed like a clever pun for an instrumental band. But after speaking to Brian ― seeing evidence of his political past, and hearing about the social context of Taiwan ― Aphasia (or "voiceless-ness") has a much more political meaning than I'd initially understood.

In addition to the band and the studio, Brian mans the soundboard at the Wall, one of only five venues (in a city the size of Toronto) that books original bands. (Illustrating the close-knit nature of the scene, the venue houses the original White Wabbit Records store, and was co-founded by Spring Scream's Jimi Moe.)

Brian is like many of the successful indie bands we meet in Taiwan, a veteran of the scene who grew up under martial law and who appreciates the freedom of expression they now enjoy. But what makes Taiwan unique is that everyone in the scene ― every original song, every record, every show ― is one of the first of its kind. DIY culture was not only implausible 20 years ago, it was impossible, not to mention dangerous. So Taiwanese bands grew without heroes, without mentors and with very few indigenous examples around them.

One of those pioneers is Sissey Chao, who founded his band Double X nearly 20 years ago. "At that time, there was a lot of government control and censorship," Sissey explains. "Everyone seemed very serious and uptight; we felt we really need to break that mould ― to jump around on stage, not just stand there and sing." The first Double X album, Sissey explains, was "a concept album, from birth to death. And in between, sex. I was the first to sing about sex in Taiwan."

That album, whose title translates as Put Myself Out, was banned immediately after its release on a small independent label. "They thought I'm gonna pull my dick out," Sissey explains about a misunderstanding derived from the album's title. "It's not ― it's put my soul out, put my inside out." (Ironically, the label was called NC-18, after the ratings system in Taiwan; the label folded soon after.) The ban stung for Sissey, whose intentions were far from political. "I was never against government or anyone. I was never really anti-establishment. It got pretty rocky [after the ban] ― I had to go find a job. I quit music for a while."

Sissey wears a Lone Ranger style mask on stage, as well as during interviews; when he first started, he used to wear make-up, "but it's too much trouble," he explains. He uses the mask to distinguish his on-stage persona from his everyday life. "I don't want people to recognize me." That quest for anonymity was heightened during his early days, when his album was banned. "I could feel this endless fear, the pressure that something could happen to me. Even my record company told me to watch out, to be careful."

After that experience, it would be totally understandable for him to walk away from music. "I tried to quit but I couldn't ― songs occur in my mind every minute, every second. Now I want to create music that's more peaceful and calming instead of rebelling and hating each other. I think we're flowers, we're loving seeds from heaven. [Music] is probably more spiritual for me now."

While I'm focusing here on the bands touring Canada this summer, we experienced a broad range in style and approach within the Taiwanese indie scene, ranging from the well-oiled machine of Taiwan's most successful export, metal band Cthonic, to the balcony-and-bedroom "amongst friends" approach of label A Good Day. We talk to the founder of another venue, Geddy Lin, who built his stage in order to have a place to jam on the fusion jazz he fell in love with during time in California. We sit in the sophisticated, professional studios of Wonder Music who believe that a lo-fi approach is detrimental to independent music's potential success. And we chat with plenty of aspiring bands like Windmill (who works at White Wabbit), 1976 (who are fanatical and knowledgeable sports fans) and Cherryboom (an all-girl band we loved at Spring Scream, who are ready-made rock stars who give us their autographs without asking).

There are two commonalities that most musicians we meet share: the average age is mid-30s, and most of them have few illusions about music being anything more than art for art's sake. And despite our fascination with the dedicated activism of Kou Chou Ching and members of Aphasia, mainstream Taiwanese culture is in no way defined by harsh political split with mainland China; in a recent poll, almost 80 percent of Taiwanese citizens supported a political "status quo" ― Taiwan as a democracy, but with strong economic and political ties to China.

Most Taiwanese citizens are of Chinese or Japanese descent, but there's a significant minority population of aboriginal islanders who've also fought to maintain their own unique history, traditions, language and culture. Matzka is one of the rising aboriginal bands in Taiwan, and they've latched onto a different musical tradition that they see as a natural fit for this island nation: reggae. "Taiwan is a southern island," says Matzka frontman Song Wei Nun. "We have sunshine and beaches and waves and plenty of wine." When I point out that unlike the Caribbean, Taiwan is strictly anti-drugs and thus pot culture isn't part of Taiwanese reggae, Song Wei Nun laughs. "We have betel nut," citing the popular South Asian plant that's also a mild stimulant. "You should try it."

Matzka formed in 2008 in order to enter an aboriginal music contest, which they won. Nun didn't know a lot about reggae culture, but it proved to be a perfect fit for singing in his native aboriginal language. "Our aboriginal background offers a lot of cultural references and folk stories that we can express in reggae."

He has a positive view on the challenges of making music in Taiwan as an aboriginal band. "Being aboriginal ― because we're not usually well off ― we don't have as good equipment or venues to practice in, but because of that disadvantage, it allows us not to be as distracted by the material world. It keeps us focused on creating good music. But otherwise, I don't think there are any other challenges being an aboriginal band."

We experienced this kind of upbeat approach throughout our time in Taiwan; Cherryboom cited no sexist attitudes in the music scene, only that they disliked lugging heavy equipment. Bands are experiencing the same erosion in CD sales as the rest of the world, but everyone we spoke to was upbeat about the prospects of Taiwan's music culture. Taipei is a huge, clean and prosperous city that has limited options for young bands to cut their teeth, but what opportunities they do have are staffed by hard-working musicians like Brian behind the soundboard at the Wall, or Geddy Lin's Riverside ― people more dedicated to art and building community than an economic bottom line.

As lifelong music fans, we're keenly aware of significant moments in music history, when social and economic forces meet communities of dedicated musicians and that spark creates art that has an impact well beyond their small circles: the Southern U.S. of the 1950s, New York and London of the mid-'70s, Seattle in the late '80s. But this is the first time we'd ever felt like we were witnessing the beginnings of such a movement. Not all, or even many, indie bands in Taiwan are great. Perhaps none of them will revolutionize music as we know it. But the act of creation ― writing a song, learning an instrument, performing for the first time ― is a fresh mark in the unwritten future of Taiwanese youth culture. They're just now breathing in the opportunities afforded by freedom of expression that Canadians take for granted. Through music, Taiwan is finding a voice.

Aphasia, Kou Chou Ching, Aphasia, Matzka and Double X, along with electro-pop band Go Chic are playing in Vancouver, Halifax and Toronto at the end of August. See www.umusiclive.com for details. For a tour diary of our Taiwan adventures, check www.taiwan.exclaim.ca.