Small world, big show

All musical endeavours have a backstory, of course. But few have as interesting a context as Small Island Big Song.

The easy part first: Small Island Big Song is a touring show (and associated albums and film) that gigs at The Arts Center at NYUAD on 29 November, featuring some top musicians from the islands of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean – from Taiwan, Tokelau/Aotearoa (New Zealand), Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and Mauritius. Occasionally they play alone, but mostly they’re together; sometimes they do their own songs, more often they’re collaborations.

So it’s ‘world music’? Well, yes in the sense that it’s not conventionally styled Western music and it’s not played by Western artists. More important, yes in the sense that it’s music which has something to say about the world – our world.

Small Island Big Song is a project that’s been running for over eight years now. It started as a way of documenting the music of indigenous communities in the Pacific on film and as recordings. Their islands are some of the places most at risk from climate change, but it soon emerged they had much more in common – there are genuine and deep-rooted connections between the music of those islands, even when they were several thousand kilometres apart. The connections stretched to the far side of the Indian Ocean too.

So Small Island Big Song has become something of a research trip, covering more than 16 island nations (with more to follow). So far it’s produced two award-winning albums, a feature film and concert tours. And while the aims are serious, the music is not at all hard work – it’s good music, sometimes poignant, often fun, always interesting.

Emlyn from Mauritius <em>Photo: Gelée Lai</em>
Emlyn from Mauritius. Photo: Gelée Lai

Taiwanese theatre and film producer BaoBao Chen and music producer and filmmaker Tim Cole met just over 10 years now, while Cole was at a recording studio in the heart of Australia – “working with the indigenous voices of Australia right out in the remote parts of the desert, recording the ancient songs that in the West we call ‘songlines’”.

“The contract was winding down,” says Cole, “and we really wanted to do something together that would build our relationship and create a lifestyle future for ourselves, a project that used our individual resources on something that had more meaning than us. And it was after a day of recording the last of those songs that we heard on BBC about the 5th IPCC report”.

IPCC 5 is the Fifth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its conclusions: “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems”. A rise in global temperatures means a rise in sea levels; and few people will be more directly affected the inhabitants of the low-lying islands of the Pacific.

This chimed with BaoBao and Tim. They’d just made a film in Vanuatu, a world completely opposite to the Australian desert, all about islands and people’s connection to water. So they started thinking about a project that covered all those bases.

But it wasn’t just the desire to share their stories and highlight their issues; it turned out there were more connections than a shared concern about the future. “While we were making the documentary in Vanautu” says BaoBao ‘one of the community’s elders asked me where I come from. I said I was from Taiwan. And he said, ‘oh my ancestors come from Taiwan’.”

BaoBao and Tim were surprised, but in fact there’s a seafaring heritage that connects Taiwan and Vanuatu; and indeed the wider Pacific Islands, and also across into the Indian Ocean. It’s bolstered by academic research – DNA, linguistics, physiology – but also by more specific and more contemporary links between apparently different places.

Olivia Foa’i from Tokelau/Aotearoa. Photo: Tony Tsai

“Later when we brought people from different islands into one room to rehearse for the first concert, they started to discover so many common features,” says Tim Cole. “Like instruments. There’s a stringed instrument from Madagascar called the valiha, a sort of tubed zither with strings for plucking arranged down the outside of a length of bamboo. The same instrument is found in Borneo, Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia. It’s just in a different form, making use of local materials”.

Shared instruments make for common rhythms – “there were some very clear musical connections that we found, particularly through the Pacific with different log drum rhythms” – and logically there’s no reason why it should end there: “cultural evolution, growth and sharing is not finished. Through our project everyone got to collaborate and make music together, and there’s a healthy dose of cross fertislisation.”

So how did BaoBao and Tim actually decide where to go, which songs to pick, which artists to or which people to start recording? Basically, they opened a map of the Pacific and decided they had to include the extremes – North to South from Taiwan to Aotearoa (New Zealand), east to west from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) all the way to Madagascar.

“The first artist we actually met and recorded is Yoyo Tuki from Rapa Nui. He’ll be with us in Abu Dhabi, flying from Easter Island, which he complains is too far (lol) … Sammy from Madagascar will be with us as well, he’s learned how to make most of Madagascar’s traditional instruments. There’s Olivia Foa’i from Tokelau/Aotearoa, a great singer-songwriter. And from Taiwan we have two artists, Putad from the Amis tribe and Sauljaljui from the Paiwan. Emlyn from Mauritius; she sings in Mauritian Creole. And Richard Mogu from the south coast of Papua New Guinea – an extraordinary musician, a master of traditional percussions.

“Actually everyone are masters of their instruments. This is a great ensemble – I think Abu Dhabi will be seeing one of the strongest ensembles we’ve performed.”

Once they decided on the idea of the project, it became clear that they had to visit each of the musicians in their own environment “to capture the essential link between people and nature”, as Tim Cole puts it. The artists may share elements of their music, but the music itself was rooted in a sense of place. “Yes, we could have just invited them to a studio in Melbourne or Taiwan, and that way we could probably have got it done in ten days or so. But we wanted to see them in their own environment, get to know them, record in nature.”

That’s why the exercise took so long. BaoBao Chen says it took four years for the first results of the Small Island Big Song project to emerge. Year one was spent developing a contract and finding enough money to get started. Then there were three years traveling and recording while still juggling promotion and fundraising.

But speed wasn’t an issue, especially as the two established several ground rules that slowed things right down. Cole in particular laid down a defined process and protocols for recording: “What we were really hoping to do was to capture the real voice of the places where we were. As a producer, and a sound engineer, I like to have a shape to any recording project I do. So my manifesto for recording was that all the artists identified as carrying the cultural lineage of the place where we were recording: they sing in the language of their heritage, and they use the instruments from that place. I have nothing against guitars, or brass instruments, or synths, but they speak of a relationship to a different cultural stream.

Sammy from Madagascar. Photo: Samra Teague

“And then the last rule was that everything else would be the choice of the artist. We don’t tell people what song to play, what to wear, how to present themselves. We didn’t write the songs, either. We might record a song in one place, then play it to another artist somewhere else and find that they respond to it, adding lyrics and instruments. That way they write the songs together.

“Yes, I make choices in editing, but then I sent it back to the musicians and get approval from everyone before we go with it.”

The rules of recording also allowed artists to choose the physical location for the recording. This must have been tricky at times: deep into the mangroves, on a pebble beach next to big waves, the edge of an active volcano. It must also have been professionally challenging (how to baffle a mike on the lip of the caldera?) but Tim Cole shrugs it off: “I love having to work with the environment – nature is another element in the mix, it’s like another musician”.

The other major headache must have been the legal and contractual aspects of setting up commercial arrangements with numerous artists from numerous countries, collaborating together on numerous songs.

For a start, through, there are no sponsorships. Says BaoBao: “everything that the project received was arms-length funding that mean we have no obligations to tick any boxes”. Apart from some microphones which they were given, which were “really handy” and which just appear incidentally in the film.

And Small Island Big Song is not a cooperative – most of the artists have their own careers outside the project, and Chen and Cole say they do want Small Island Big Song to be a successful business commercially. At the same time they’re concerned that it should operate ethically. “So we sought out lawyers that specialize in this area, people that have worked on other highly respected projects, to get all those elements nailed down.

“Right from the start it was important to show the artists that the money story is managed in the right way. Everyone gets paid, and everyone goes home with good wages. No one gets ripped off. There’s an equal distribution of the net income we generate. And a part of it also goes into a pool which is distributed across everyone in the project and to their communities.

“We don’t own anyone’s original songs, only the version we created with them, so after the project they can go out and record their songs for themselves. Occasionally somebody asks to put some of our work on to a soundtrack, and then we have to get the permission of everyone involved. But that’s standard for songwriting.”

Small Island Big Song live on tour at the National Concert Hall, Taiwan, earlier this year. Photo: Tony Tsai

It’s a commercial enterprise, but one with a heart and one from which everyone benefits. “We aren’t anthropologists,” says Tim Cole. “We are dynamic – we’re creating collaborations between artists that are sharing musical heritage but also evolving it. For instance, I’ve known Airileke for years on different projects. He’s a master drummer, especially on traditional instruments. We spent a week recording with him in his village. And he said, ‘look, I know you suggested traditional drums, but I’m going to sample my instruments and give you beats like hip hop, 16 bars, looped beats. I’m doing this on purpose to make a statement that our culture is alive and relevant. We have access to all the contemporary music tools, and we’re in control of shaping where our culture is going’ …”

That is very much part of Chen and Cole’s philosophy too. We need to shake up our dominant global culture because the climate change and environmental collapse are real. The science is there, and there’s no one who isn’t touched by these things now – but why aren’t we coming together with the urgency that they would on these small island cultures to respond to this?

“So how can we cultural practitioners play a role? We’re not going to solve it ourselves, but we can give the world a nudge …”

The Small Island Big Song nudge for Abu Dhabi is at 8.30pm on 29 November in The Arts Center’s Black Box performance space. Tickets are the usual AED 105 – which is frankly a bargain in more ways than one.

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