Jesse Warren – March 2016 – Shenzhen Daily

OVER the past few years, Shenzhen has undergone a musical renaissance. Everything from live bands to hip-hop, underground raves to ukulele clubs, plenty of bass and a surge of festivals have graced the city. If you took all of these elements, crammed them into one weekend and amplified it by a factor of 10, you would have Taiwan’s Spring Scream. It’s coming up this Qingming holiday April 2-4, and if you don’t have plans already, here’s why you should go.

Entering its 22nd year, Spring Scream is the longest running music festival in Taiwan. It was born when a few expats brought a dozen bands together on a southern beach back in 1995. Now, it’s a three-day music festival in Kenting National Park on the southern tip of the island, featuring 200 bands spread across eight stages — nearly all of them local, including Taiwanese and expats.

Where did this explosion of music come from?

With unhindered connections to the outside world, Taiwan’s music culture has been steadily growing for years, fostering a particularly healthy music scene since the ’80s. Thanks to supportive venues, government aid for the arts and a fusion of cultures, Taiwan has provided a fertile breeding ground for bands to thrive. Venues such as Triangle, The Wall, Pipe Live and Korner are obligatory for any music lover’s agenda in Taipei.

Back to the festival itself, the bands are not booked — they must apply for one of roughly 200 spots. None of them are paid. And if you don’t make original music, you don’t stand a chance. That disqualifies most DJs out there. But Spring Scream is about the bands, as just one stage is dedicated to electronic music.

Walking from stage to stage two years ago during the 20th year, not a single act failed to impress. On one stage, OVDS, a seven-piece bass music band (and at times metal) had the crowd in a frenzy.

The next stage hosted three punk rockers, including a girl bassist prancing around wearing a dinosaur hat as the drummer threw his sticks into the appreciative crowd.

A smaller stage featured an all-Japanese girl band dancing and singing in unison. A local metal band with an expat as their lead singer had a mosh pit going. Yet another had an expat rapper describing a myriad of things that happen “in the club” — ending with — you guessed it — knocking boots, in less subtle language.

Milk, an ensemble dating back to the early 2000s, flew in from various corners of the world and jammed like it was nothing, one member dressed as Confucius, one playing a didgeridoo, another wearing a loin cloth and one with a plant on his head.

“It’s an amazing cultural institution. It started at the grassroots, with an eclectic mix of musicians. Most bands in Taiwan that have made a name for themselves have made an appearance at Spring Scream,” said Shenzhen’s pioneering indie rocker Dirt Star. He got his musical start busking on the streets of Taipei and has played the festival several times himself. Perhaps one day he will reveal his long-awaited punk rock girl band movie, filmed in Shenzhen.

As happens with anything making waves, other festivals have followed in the wake of Spring Scream, capitalizing on the flood of young people heading south for spring break. And while they have taken a more commercial, mainstream route, Spring Scream has remained grassroots. One year they responded by booking popular singer A-mei, but it killed the vibe, so they have since reverted to their tried and tested formula, providing a chance for young indie rockers to shine.

The closing act of the 20th festival was Skaraoke, an eight-piece ska/reggae ensemble of local Taiwanese. Joined by an equal number of friends on stage, they had the audience singing along word for word to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” When the plug was pulled, they marched through the crowd with brass instruments still blazing.

Lead singer Thomas Hu said of Taiwan’s music scene, “Aside from pop music, which is a huge industry, we have almost everything you can think of — traditional Chinese, Taiwanese folk, Aboriginal & Hakka music — to Goth metal, bluegrass, jazz and reggae.”

Something must also be said for electronic music in Taiwan. The first outdoor raves in Taipei date back to 1995, and as far too many Shenzhen ravers know — the authorities prefer licensed venues. Thus a strong contingent of dance-friendly spaces has filled the void in Taipei. What strikes me most about these venues is the absence of tables, complete artistic freedom for performers and large dance floors filled to the brim, nary a cell phone in sight. For every crew or promoter that Shenzhen has, Taipei has at least three booking international talent. Jeff Mills, Rockwell, Ben Klock, Fracture, and Move D are just a few artists that have performed recently.

As for Spring Scream? I’ve seen a lot of bands and have been to a lot of festivals in my lifetime. And I feel safe saying that this festival is the single most impressive musical experience that I’ve ever had. Sure, I’ve seen bigger bands and DJs, but the local nature of the festival, immense variety and quality of the bands and relaxing homegrown atmosphere make for a festival experience unlike any other. I’ll see you in Kenting on April 2, front row and center from stage to stage.