The young man on stage is shirtless, revealing his sculpted torso to a crowd of about one hundred that has still yet to be warmed up. The DJ a few meters downstage hits play, which is the shirtless performer's cue to don a jacket and what looks like a rubber goblin head, kicking off a week of music with a raucous, if unceremonious, set of nu metal-influenced hip hop. The artist is GIGO; the occasion is the Asian Rolling Music Festival in Taipei; the location is Corner MAX, across the street from the former tobacco factory now known as Songshan Creative Park.
This week's festivities are the precursor to the main event this weekend: the 2023 Golden Indie Music Awards (GIMA). With both invited performers (one of whom is the rapper growling onstage) and acts competing in GIMA's Best Performance category, Asia Rolling is a convergence of Taiwanese talent and their counterparts in Asia curated by Tseng Kuo-Hung of Sunset Rollercoaster. Tseng has tapped rising Filipino-American singer-songwriter Michael Seyer, Taiwanese-British producer Kamaal Williams, and Hong Kong bedroom pop artist Room307 to play alongside local acts like Sonia Calico, Iruka Police, and LINION. Given the global success of Sunset Rollercoaster, it makes sense that Tseng's been called up to helm this year's festival as the Taiwanese music industry continues to look toward connecting with other Asian talent across the world.
It's clear, however, that the Best Performance category this year is really a showdown between two rappers, Aquaman and Gummy B. The two competed in MTV The Rappers Season 2 earlier this year; the former, a rapid-fire wordsmith rhyming in Taiwanese, prevailed over the latter, whose emotional Mandarin bars cut closer to R&B. Scheduled to perform last on different days, it feels as though they're the headliners, with the other competitors serving as their opening acts. After all, it's difficult to compare the minimalism of Go Go Machine Orchestra to the kitschy showa kayo of Shao Dalun? A_Root and JADE are similarly incommensurable, between folk fusion and alternative rock. While other awards like the Grammys separate the Best Performance category by genre, GIMA has given the adjudicators the difficult task of selecting a winner from these six artists, only two of whom share a genre.
So it's not a surprise when one of the two rappers is announced as the winner on the second night—Gummy B's won out this time, raising the stakes in their friendly rivalry (it was only June this year when Gummy B was calling Aquaman "the best"). In a scene known for its "Ph.D. rappers," the collegial competition between two of its young phenoms certainly has precedent.
The rest of the festival is dedicated to artistic collaboration between musicians invited from abroad and local mainstays. Day 3 begins, then, with Taiwanese neo-soul crooner LINION showing off both his bass and vocal chops. He's paired with Allex Chan aka Room307, who takes the stage afterward and transmutes LINION's chill energy into something slightly dreamier with a more filled out backing band. Supported by a trumpeter, rhythm guitarist, bassist, and drummer, Chan sings in Cantonese with a detached air.
On Day 4 there's actually a bit more collaboration per se, ironically between two artists who are quite different in their approaches. Iruka Police's cartoonish brand of spunky indie pop—both hyper-cute and unruly—needs no introduction in Taiwan, while Michael Seyer's vulnerable songwriting comes hand in hand with a detached Gen Z cool that's home-grown in LA. So when lead dolphin Wu Yue brings out Seyer to join in on a cover of the latter's "Chemotherapy," it’s a rare bit of sincerity that makes the moment more meaningful. Dealing with the cancer diagnosis of Seyer's father, the lyrics of "Chemotherapy" were what drew Wu to cover the song, which she found "powerful". When Seyer takes the stage with his own band, they do a cover of their own ('Tank!' from the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack) before continuing with a jazzier set. But Seyer later returns the favor, bringing back Wu to join in on a song with his own band.
On the final day, it's Kamaal Williams who opens with an ambient, jazzy set, improvising soft synth lines over masterful drumming. When LEO37 takes the stage with his band Robot Swing, things start to heat up, with explosive solos from saxophonist Minyen Hsieh. Williams joins in again eventually too, but it feels as though the breakneck pace laid down by Robot Swing is difficult to match with his laid-back style.
Williams gets back into his element during the afterparty, eventually working his way up from acid jazz to ragga jungle, dropping Shy FX and UK Apachi's classic tune "Original Nuttah." Local producer and DJ Sonia Calico picks up where he leaves off, the two spinning back to back with a shared understanding of the UK's more hardcore contributions to global dance music. With Sonia Calico mixing in Mandopop edits, it's a seamless meeting of UK and Taiwanese flavors.