NXNE preview: Northby acts among highlights at Jade Music Festival in Taiwan

Canadian acts with Asian heritage featured at Taipei event

What: Jade Music Festival
When: April 27 – 28
Where: Huashan 1914 Creative Park, Taipei, Taiwan
Highlight: Taiwan rap star Aquaman’s muscular set and Aiki Tomi’s “snake charming”
Rating: NNNN
Next: Aiko Tomi plays NXNE on Thurs., June 14 (Bar Cathedral); Tennyson King, plays NXNE on Fri., June 15 (Burdock)

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — WHEN I’M awakened at 4 am being tossed side to side in my Taipei hotel room bed, my first thought is it must be some super-cool Asian wakeup call service; my phone “alarm” is buzzing after all. I arrived in Taiwan that morning after taking the longest direct flight from Toronto — 16 hours — for the weekend of the Jade Music Festival. As I struggle to grab my phone, a message on it declares, “Presidential Alert! Earthquake Alert Felt earthquake alert. Keep calm and seek cover nearby. CWA.”

Realizing there is actually little I can do, I surrender to my fate, the subsequent aftershock helping rock me back to sleep. Earthquakes are nothing new in Taiwan.

The next morning, the hotel’s breakfast café is jammed with Canadian musicians with Asian backgrounds here to play Jade Fest, all sharing various degrees of concern about that night’s quake. The higher up in the hotel, the more extreme the experience of the quake; I’m on the second floor. Taiwanese hosts chuckle it off, pointing out it was “only 6.0.” The much more destructive quake that hit the island’s east coast earlier in April, and was felt in Taipei, registered 7.7 and did real damage.

Jade Fest launched in Vancouver last fall with concerts and a conference to showcase and encourage Canadian musicians with Asian heritages to explore writing and recording in their ancestral language. It was meant to both open up a huge Asian music market and deepen family connections between the generations. Good for the soul and potentially good for the wallet.

What was clear when I attended Jade Fest last November, and is evident here in Taipei, is that the festival has identified and connected a community of artists eager to learn from their shared backgrounds. This year, I’m wearing two hats. I’m covering Jade Fest’s first Asian event for NEXT and speaking at the accompanying conference. I’m also scouting talent for NXNE, looking for acts playing the festival this year as well as acts to invite to NXNE 2025

Jade Fest veteran, writer of dreamy folk-pop songs, Tennyson King, who plays NXNE on Fri., June 14 (Burdock), tells me over bowls of congee at breakfast, “To me, Jade Music Fest means re-connecting with my native language of Cantonese and strengthening my knowledge of Mandarin through music. It’s amazing to know that there are opportunities in Canada, and now beyond, that allow me to share music in the language of my culture and family.”

King has built a mini-Asian tour around his visit to Taiwan, playing all over the island after the festival and then continuing to shows in Japan before hitting Toronto for NXNE. King is joined on the tour and his Taipei gig by Van Lefan, his girlfriend, whom he met through Jade Fest.

“The festival also means community to me,” he explains “Having been involved now for almost a year, we’ve been creating a community of musicians and artists that all have a connection to the Chinese language. We all support each other, and it’s been really nice to have this community of Asian musicians, which is so underrepresented in the Canadian music industry. I feel like we’ve all become a family now and are constantly helping each other grow.”

Throughout Jade Fest weekend, acts sit in with each other for festival performances at Taipei’s Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a great venue that’s a cross between Toronto’s Distillery District and Harbourfront Centre. Publicly owned, it makes money turning an old munitions works and nearby rice wine factory into a thriving cultural, retail and food centre in downtown.

Lefan accompanies King on flute and vocals at his Saturday afternoon festival gig while he plays the Zhongruan, a traditional Chinese instrument that looks like an oversized lute. There’s a Nick Drake quality to his moody tunes, which are thematically more upbeat than the always-brooding Australian. The afternoon crowd of mostly locals loves it and appreciates when he mixes Mandarin songs — and stage banter — with his English tracks.

When pop-punk powerhouse Aiko Tomi takes the stage later that day, she doesn’t enlist help from fellow musicians but, instead, borrows a massive live snake from an audience member to use in her set — the perfect living prop for her edgy activist track, Animals Awake. And yes, someone in the crowd at Jade Fest just happened to have a massive, 12-foot snake with them for Tomi to wrangle for her show.

Tomi, who plays NXNE, on Thurs., June 13 (Bar Cathedral), delivers a boundary-pushing, energy-packed show reminiscent of Peaches that demands your attention as she leaps around the stage and pours her passion into her songs.

After her set, Tomi tells me she is both “affirmed and inspired” by playing Jade Fest.

“It’s moving to hear my fellow Chinese Canadian artists speak and sing in various Chinese dialects; we all come to this festival with such unique relationships and histories with the Chinese language,” says Tomi. ”Even though I’m comfortable conversing in Mandarin, I have never spoken Mandarin on stage. I was honestly going to just do my banter in English, but after hearing some other artists trying to connect with the local audience in Mandarin, I was so inspired, I was like, ‘Fuck it!’ and started speaking in Mandarin.

“It was surprisingly smooth at times and a bit awkward at others,” she says. “But I feel like people just appreciate the effort you make. Later, when some of the local Taiwanese artists made an effort to speak English on stage — it was so endearing, I realized that the genuine desire and effort to communicate is all any audience really wants.”

In addition to Canadian acts, Jade Fest also features local performers and others based in Asia. The arrival of Hong Kong-based pop singer Serrini for her Sunday showtime sends a wave of electricity through the crowd, which has suddenly swelled before her set — the Asian star clearly has lots of local fans. Her punchy, beats-heavy, pop-powered show would be a hit In Toronto and she’ll definitely be on the 2025 invite list.

Local star Aquaman is the Sunday closing-night headliner, the crowd growing even larger after Serrini. Aquaman is an emerging star having literally just won the national TV hip hop competition, a Taiwan’s Got Talent kind of show for rap that drew huge audiences leading up to his crowning. He plays a muscular hip hop show, literally musclebound as he and his posse do plenty of flexing during his powerhouse set, with a live band supplementing the DJ to create killer beats.

The crowd loves it, and Aquaman is clearly having a blast. Amped up on Red Bull and an adoring crowd, Aquaman banters in Mandarin before suddenly declaring in English, “Uncle Mike, bring me to Canada,” at which point, I realize he is talking to me and which my Taiwanese friends later confirm.

Aquaman, you can count on it. Uncle Mike will be sending an invite to NXNE 2025 for sure.