Taiwan’s sonic landscape pulses with the rhythms of its history and culture, from the eclectic, nearly autobiographical soundtracks of Edward Yang’s films to Sunset Rollercoaster’s riotous jazzy synthpop performances. This time around, the recent World Music Festival in Taiwan offered an insightful perspective of what the region’s music represents in the world at large. Comprising three stages, the festival attracted over 12,000 attendees this year.
The term “world music” has always been rather ambiguous. Often yielding to a Western perspective, lately, there’s been a shift of it told from a local perspective where a music festival connects with other musical cultures at large. If anything, world music should no longer have to qualify under a static, textbook definition set by a certain culture. Aptly, world music now considers global tides of exchange and cross-cultural pollination.
Many artists on the World Music Festival line-up, comprising over 200 musicians and representing a total of 35 countries, were adept at navigating how cultures today are kaleidoscopic. Sauljaljui’s ardent singing intertwined with her Chinese lute (called Yueqin), evoking the Paiwan tribe’s interconnectedness with rivers. Meanwhile, Outlet Drift’s swaggering psychedelic surf rock owed its fierce edge to their Amis vocal harmonies. People in the audience interlocked hands as they danced to Biung Wang’s songs, blending his native Bunkum language and Mandarin. Tsng-kha-lâng’s funereal rock reflected on the lingering ghosts of Taiwan’s martial law through localized sensibilities of mainland Chinese music. They were among the Taiwanese groups who radiated immense pride in sharing their roots in a contemporary way.
The acts also touched upon pressing issues in Taiwan and the world at large. Southern Riot, comprised of Indonesian members based in Taiwan, used their stage as a megaphone for migrant workers. One of their songs momentarily turned down their feedback-laden punk rock to sing a lament naming actual migrant workers suffering depression. Balaklava Blues, who had members on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine, expressed the strife of war through percussively dark electronic music and Ukrainian polyphony. To really encompass the music of the world, one needs to also hear the struggles along with the triumphs.
The indoor stages also held some interesting experiments in presentation, like Cicada’s collaboration with Aroma Disco, where scents wafted throughout the hall to complement minimal orchestral compositions. On a separate day, Chung-Ching Chen’s set had her playing the traditional lute to electronic elements as Bio swirled paint and colored oil on an overhead projector pointed at a wide screen.
Another highlight was Ak Dan Gwang Chil (ADG7) and their wildly imaginative take on Korean traditional instruments and shamanic singing. It was irresistibly danceable, and it’s clear why they’ve made appearances at Glastonbury, KEXP, and Tiny Desk. Joanna Wang, who previously went TikTok viral with her elaborate orchestral rendition of “Alice in Wonderland,” played with a jazz ensemble as the sun set on the last day. Despite the language barriers, Taiwanese audiences were quite receptive to the music on its own terms.
The trade fair, a first for the festival, provided a respite from walking in between stages under the autumn sun. There were booths showcasing different initiatives in the Taiwan region like the hyperdance rave outfit The Cave, the trilingual media platform Taiwan Beats, regional music curators and promoters NPCC, indie diplomats ID-TW Pop Bureau, and more. Aside from undeniably tasteful graphic design on display, the exhibitors gave a glimpse into the different facets of Taiwan’s musical ecology, from niche festivals to underground movements.
One of the most remarkable qualities of its four-day run was the audience that the Taipei Music Center welcomed. There were plenty of families enjoying the spacious festival grounds and other attractions. Sunday afternoon had many senior citizens in wheelchairs and their caregivers bobbing their heads to Pigheadskin’s rock and roll antics. Washrooms were designated for all genders, and special ones even had provisions for children and individuals with wheelchairs or other mobility-related implements. A lot of events for music are held in places that exclude so many people willing to hear music, which is why venues that take accessibility into consideration can certainly broaden audiences.
The WMF is an example of how showcase programs can also bring promising artists opportunities to perform at other festivals in the bigger scheme of music export. At the conference sessions of the festival, discussions were held with representatives of other platforms like the WOMAD Chile Festival, Italian World Beat in Naples, Seoul Music Week, Ulsan Jazz Festival, and the Colors of Ostrava in the Czech Republic. The Rest is Noise Philippines was also in attendance. For industry people, the best way to scout for artists is to see them live in their element.
The festival’s showcase program, which accepts applications from all over the world, looks forward to Filipino musicians for next year’s edition. WMF’s Head of Programme, Peiti Huang, says: “As a program director, I often enjoy personally exploring new music and performances. Therefore, in my music festival, showcasing has become a crucial aspect. We encourage talented groups from various countries to apply, and we look forward to seeing more Filipino groups participate!”
Of course, the underlying current here is substantial institutional support for artists. The conference sparked discussions about how public and private funding is vital in supporting these networks of music export, which concerns the music industry as a whole. The caveat for showcases is that in many cases, bands pay out of pocket to be present. A few bands at WMF this year were there thanks to funding from their respective countries. Performing at a showcase is an opportunity to meet a new audience, like giving a calling card of sorts, which may lead to more opportunities in the future.
There are so many Filipino acts that deserve to bask in the spotlight on platforms such as these. Talahib People’s Music’s appearance at WMF last year also left a good impression on the festival’s regulars. A few days after this festival, post-rock polyglot Gabba represented the country in SXSW Sydney. Ena Mori was the only Filipino act at SXSW’s all-Asian music festival in Texas earlier this year. Munimuni is playing at the upcoming LUCfest in Taiwan, which SOS played in 2019. The latter played alongside The Itchyworms at Tokyo Beyond Festival in 2022. Also, the AXEAN festival in Singapore has hosted around five Filipino bands per year since 2020. Foreign audiences are eager to know more about the Philippines, and showcases are a significant avenue for our country to cultivate a reputation as a hotspot of music.
We’ve seen how music has been able to make a country’s presence known on an international stage, whether it’s K-Pop, música popular brasileira, dangdut, or budots. That’s the beauty of music, when it takes pride in what makes it what it is: its very instrumentation, its narratives, and how it makes up the very fabric of how people connect to each other. Affirming its own cultural specificities enables it to transcend barriers of language and geography.
The WMF shows the possibilities of what could happen when the Philippines bolsters its support of our local musicians, who have a lot to contribute to the global perspective of not just world music, but music in general. It’s a worthwhile endeavor for musicians, public and private sponsors, and the local music industry as a whole. That’s also an opportunity that Filipinos interested in performing at or going to the next WMF and other festivals around the world can look forward to.