A vast array of islands, from Indonesia to Taiwan to Guam to Hawaii to Tahiti and Rapa Nui, are spread across the Pacific Ocean — and they are filled with artists. Knowing that not everyone can come to the Pacific Islands, these artists decided to take their islands “on tour” to the world, naming their project Small Island Big Song. In February, that tour comes to Seattle’s Meany Center for the Performing Arts.
Small Island Big Song combines music, film, and performing arts to explore the commonalities among these disparate islands and the ocean that surrounds them. Developed by Taiwanese theater producer BaoBao Chen and Australian music producer and filmmaker Tim Cole, this project includes eight featured touring artists and three dozen collaborating artists.
For Chen, this eight-year project arose unexpectedly.
“Back in 2012 when Tim and I were in Vanuatu filming Vanuatu Women’s Water Music, an elder looked at me and said, ‘My ancestors come from Taiwan,’” said Chen. “We discovered this incredible heritage spread across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.”
Chen and Cole used their perspectives as theatre and music artists to delve into these heritages. “Most of these island communities were established by the ancient seafarers who originally set sail from Taiwan thousands of years ago,” said Chen. “Our focus is creating contemporary and creative collaboration across this region that shares not just the seafaring roots, but also concerns for our changing sea.”
One of the key songs in Small Island Big Song, entitled “Gasikara,” was initially created by Airileke Ingram, who is originally from the village Gabagaba, or Drumdrum, in Papua New Guinea, but currently lives in Australia. “Responding to the loss of fish due to coral bleaching, master drummer Airileke recorded a driving rhythm using his village’s Kundu and Garamut drums,” Chen described.
Papua New Guinea is not alone in this environmental struggle, so Chen saw opportunities for musical collaboration around Airileke’s song. “Other coastal villages that we also visited were experiencing the same loss of their vital coral reefs, one of which was Madagascar’s west coast,” she explained. “Sammy, a world music legend and dedicated multi-instrumentalist from Merina, Madagascar, contributed musical backing using a rare and threatened instrument, the Jejy.”
The project’s travels allowed still more artists to contribute. “In Taiwan, Indigenous Paiwanese singer Sauljaljui sung a powerful chant, and for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Torres Strait Islander songman Mau Power rapped of the wisdom to protect the reef through maintaining custom practice,” Chen said.
Airileke has worked with Cole on cross-cultural music projects for several decades, and so joining Small Island Big Song seemed a natural fit. “Music always has a purpose, so I feel it is very important for us to utilize our talents, skills, and culture to bring awareness about climate change and the impact it is having on our people,” he said.
Also participating is singer Aremiti Chansin, also known as Aremistic, who hails from Tahiti, French Polynesia, and also plays the guitar and vivo, the Tahitian nasal flute. After first discovering Small Island Big Song in a documentary shown at International Oceanian Documentary Film Festival on Tahiti, Aremistic soon became involved in its next phase.
The subtitle of the show is a question: “What will we tell our children if we fail to protect our planet?” As residents of island nations, Airileke, Aremistic, and Chen all resonate with this query.
Airileke starts with the foundational concept that water is life.
“We tell our children through song and stories to be like life-giving water,” he said. “We will need to tell them to prepare and adapt for unforeseen natural disasters and hotter weather.”
Fossil fuels are both a temptation and a danger. “Now our fishermen have to venture further out to sea to find fish, which means more fuel for boats, and our ladies take that fish to the markets to sell,” Airileke explained. “Yet it is the dirty fuel that has caused the problem. Dirty habits die hard, but die they must, or we will go with them.”
And that change will require information. Airileke said that a “democratic process depends on an informed society,” urging the next generation to prioritize critical thinking over popularity and sensationalism. He explains that it is a responsibility to equip younger folks with core values, from which all else will flow.
“Those like us islanders most impacted by climate change need to master our own narratives and find ways to be heard,” he emphasized. “We can no longer settle for being subjects.”
Fellow musician Aremistic also sees that the struggle must continue.
“In Tahiti, we still survive a lot from planting and fishing so we have a strong bond between the people, the island, and the ocean,” he said. “It is at the core of our lifestyle, that we have rules and habits for preserving lands and sea, so that it keeps its regenerating cycle and provides for our communities and our children.”
Their island is not solitary. “We can easily compare and see how the worldwide consumption system affects our stocks and the way we have to adapt our habits, but overconsumption is an issue for small islands, as for the availability of food, but also for waste space and landfills,” said Artimistic. “Once we run out of space or resources, there is no going back.”
The question of future generations wasn’t new for Chen either. “This was a question Tim and I asked ourselves after hearing the predicted effects of the climate crisis across the ocean back in 2015,” she remembered. “We decided to quit our jobs, and with $5,000 between us, a few microphones and a couple of cameras, we spent the next three years following an ancient sea migration route journeying sixteen island nations across the vastness of the Pacific and Indian Ocean, from Taiwan to Aotearoa, or New Zealand, from Madagascar to Hawai’i.”
Their vision, Chen said, was to create collaborative opportunities between artists confronting the environmental changes in their homelands, who had the agency to represent their nation’s voice. “Every time when I look back to that particular time of my life, it was full of uncertainty, challenge, but hope, because of the desire of turning our anxieties to something uniting and tangible,” she said. “The journey of producing and creating Small Island Big Song has become a medicine for Tim and I, and for many collaborating artists.”
And it is gaining the attention of other climate change thinkers, as well. “Recently at COP28 (the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai), we were invited to perform at the launch of Planetary Guardians, a collective of international thought leaders and scientists such as Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, and Mary Robinson,” said Chen. “We were part of the conversation of artists’ vital role in shifting and enlightening new cultural perspectives.”
In that vein, here in Seattle, in addition to the evening performance on February 24, the Small Island Big Song artists will also offer a panel discussion, as well as two workshops open to the public. One on Dancing Mauritian Sega, and the other on Drumming Papuan Garamut.
‘Small Island Big Song’ will be performed on February 24 at Meany Hall for the Performing Arts at University of Washington, Seattle. They also play on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 at 7:30 p.m. at Vashon Center for the Arts at 19600 Vashon Highway SW on Vashon Island.