Gifts of the Ancestors in Austronesia: Small Island Big Song

Travel. It’s one of the things that unites us. So does connection to homeland. So does music.

These are all things which play into the music and the ideas behind the Small Island Big Song project. .

It is a project which explores the connections of the Asia-Pacific Austronesian ocean world across geography and time, through music. It is a project which focuses on oceanic songlines and connections through voyages by ancestors across oceans – and it’s a project which began in a desert.

Music producer Tim Cole and project manager Bao Bao Chen were working in the heart of Australia recording music of aboriginal peoples, when Cole heard a radio program about climate change in the southern hemisphere. Cole, who is Australian, realized that there was more than geographic change at stake. “I realized that with the land we were going to lose the saltwater songlines, groups of songs that can store and pass down practical knowledge, like how to sustain communities in harmony with fragile environments,” he recalled.

small island big song ocean waves sunrise

The pair set out to trace oceanic songlines from Taiwan to New Zealand, to Madagascar to Borneo to Easter Island to Vanuatu to Hawaii. For the recording and other projects they’d make during what turned out to be a three year journey, they sought artists who honored tradition in varied ways, some by composing new works and some by sharing songs which had been passed to them. All recordings were made outdoors in places chosen by the artists, and all instruments were acoustic instruments connected to the traditions of the artists.

“We did not tell people what to play,” Cole said. “We told them what we were doing and asked them to share something they were proud of.”

Chen added: “Through this project we hope to create a platform for these voices to be heard. They can share what’s going for them in a grassroots practical way. And by experiencing music and culture, we can help people come together.

There is a feature artist on each track of the Small Island Big Song CD which has resulted from this journey, and these gifted singers and musicians do stand out. What backs them up is at least as interesting: there are sounds from nature, such as bird calls and rustling leaves, varied sounds of a river rushing by, the sound of pebbles washed by waves on a shore — subtle, but certainly present as part of the story. The songs are sung in many different languages. There are instruments which range from water used as percussion to flutes to tuned bamboo sticks.

What also becomes part of the story of each song is backing from voices and instruments from different parts of the Austronesian world. That, too is a subtle choice which serves to enhance both the music itself and the ideas of connection and journey across the Asia Pacific region.

“The knowledge and values in the songs are in more than the words,” said Alena Murang, a featured artist who comes from the Kelabit community of Borneo.

“Music is my life. It fills my heart. Music is a gift,” said Yoyo Tuki, an artist who was born on Rapa Nui/Easter Island. “It is a strong way to preserve and explain…music can bring us awareness of who we are, our history and our values and our connection to nature.

small island bamboo

That passion for connection and love for sharing place and tradition come through clearly on the tracks of the Small Island Big Song recording. The use of sounds and voices from different parts of the region to support a lead voice add creative dimension well worth repeated listening; so too do the main voices and the stories they tell. There’s a booklet (of paper handmade in Taiwan) with text of the indigenous languages and translations into English.

Small Island Big Song has found support from a patchwork of private funds, grants, and other support. They follow a commitment to return half of all net profits to the artists and to NGOs selected by the artists.

Small Island Big Song is music spoken sung and played by the descendants of oceanic seafarers, in their languages. You do not have to know these languages to appreciate the beauty and the community shared through this recording. Perhaps, though, it will help you reflect on what may be lost as seas rise in the Asia Pacific and wherever you may travel in the world.

Part of one of the songs from Taiwan says

Our ancestors stood here at the ocean
Together they faced the challenge of the ocean
Facing the wind
Their eyes looking for the stars in the sky
We remember our ancestors…

Places the featured artists come from are Taiwan, Borneo, New Guinea, Bougainville, Solomon Islands, Madagascar, Indonesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Singapore, Vanuatu, Australia, Tahiti, and Easter Island.

You may wish to see the Small Island Big Song web site. .
You might also wish to learn about the book Rancher Farmer Fisherman in which several people making their lives in the American heartland consider conservation and climate change. In another book, Chesapeake Requiem, you may follow the life a community on an island in Maryland’s eastern shore where waters have been rising.

You might also like to learn about stargazing in New Zealand.

As this piece was being written word came of the tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia. If you would like to help, here is a page with links to many organizations including Red Cross/Red Crescent, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, and others working on tsunami relief in Indonesia. Update:they still are, and could still sue your help.

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