In Hawaii, it was the ring of a volcano during sunrise. In Madagascar, it was a remote beach. In Papua New Guinea, it was deep in the mangrove trees.
Why do BaoBao Chen and Tim Cole so frequently find themselves in such picturesque locales? Because of Small Island Big Song, their years-long effort to connect musicians from the island nations around the Pacific and Indian oceans in song to confront climate change. This week, eight artists from the project will perform a live multimedia concert at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts.
The project began a decade ago after Chen and Cole met at the Darwin Festival, a winter arts celebration in Australia. At the time, Chen, who is Taiwanese, was backpacking across the world and had amassed 150,000 social media followers as a travel blogger. Cole, who is Australian, was recording indigenous musicians at a studio. Upon hearing a news report about how climate change was impacting island nations in that part of the world, the married couple decided to embark on a project to raise awareness about the issue.
That led to three years of filming and recording more than 100 musicians in 16 different countries. By sharing songs, Chen and Cole were able to get musicians from different cultures and musical traditions to collaborate together.
“We thought [that] by recording music from island to island, we can try to unite these ancient heritages, but at the same time, talk about a contemporary issue,” says Chen, reached on tour from Michigan as musicians jam in the room next door.
More than just a connection with the water, these cultures often share common languages, songs and cuisine. Before colonization, Chen and Cole say these cultures used songs as a way to store knowledge and information, including how to navigate the seas. Featuring musicians from Indonesia, Australia, Madagascar, Hawaii, Singapore and other nations, Small Island Big Song released its self-titled album in 2018; its second album, “Our Island,” came out earlier this year.
The project’s songs are filmed in locations of the musicians’ choosing. In the concert, those filmed elements will be shown alongside live and prerecorded music.
“We surrender to their choices,” says Cole, who wants to emphasize the connection between music and place for these artists. “Their music cultures carry the lineage of living there for generations and generations. The language is shaped by living there. The instruments are shaped by living there.”
As an example of their music, Chen and Cole reference “Listwar Zanset,” a song inspired by the story of Mauritian enslaved people. The singer is joined by an indigenous Taiwanese musician who sings about how her ancestor’s land was taken from them and their language was banned from being spoken. That song then concludes with a spoken word coda about sea level rise from Selina Leem, a woman from the Marshall Islands who was the youngest delegate at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Though Chen and Cole wanted to repeat their process of traveling from island to island to create their second album, the pandemic had other plans. Instead, the duo spent 18 months in Zoom meetings sharing ideas and songs to create “Our Island.” The album includes Mauritian musicians playing instruments constructed from plastic trash to drive home their point of how human impact on the environment is interconnected, regardless of country.
Visually, audiences should expect to see projections that celebrate the ocean, including surfing, diving and windsurfing. Among other songs, the second album includes a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” performed by artists in their indigenous languages.
In addition to the concert, Small Island Big Song is involved with two other events at the University of Richmond. At noon on March 15, UR will host a Climate Action Panel at Boatwright Library, featuring Leem. At 5 p.m. that day, musicians from the project will show how to make musical instruments from objects of daily consumption in the lobby and courtyard for the Modlin Center. Both events are free; the latter requires preregistration.
More than anything, Cole says he hopes the project will help promote climate action.
“We’re confronting head-on the most significant issue we face together as a planet, which is our relationship to our natural environment and the impact of climate change,” Cole says. “We do it in a way that’s celebrating and uplifting, because we really feel our role is to comfort each other, to inspire each other and to be part of the movement.”
“Small Island Big Song,” takes place March 16 at 7:30 p.m. at University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts, 410 Westhampton Way, 23173. For more information, call (804) 289-8980 or visit modlin.richmond.edu.