Small Island Big Song Bringing Concert To Denver

Music producers BaoBao Chen and her husband, Tim Cole, founded Small Island Big Song. Their multimedia project assembles music and stories by Austronesians living on islands across the Indian and Pacific oceans. They will bring their production to the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, February 16.

Here, the couple explains the origin of their project.

Bao Bao Chen: Back in 2015, we heard a radio program discussing how climate change affects the ocean and the island nations across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. And very quickly, we decided to quit our jobs. And with little money, we started to travel from island to island, recording with musicians, their homeland. And it took us three years to visit 16 different island nations and work with over 100 musicians.

Tim Cole: This all happened while we were in Australia, and the islands we’re talking about are the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, this huge body of water, the Blue continent.

Chen: We started recording one song and instrument, and then we had the idea of traveling from island to island with our songs. So, many songs build up during this process, with different musicians from different islands adding different overdubs and layers onto each other’s songs. The show we are bringing to Denver at Newman Center will be a combination of footage like AV visual design, um, projection from our field trip, and the musicians whom we met during that field trip live on stage.

We met these incredible musicians who kept alive the culture and the instruments of their islands through their artistic practice. And many of them think they’re on their own doing this, fighting this good fight. But when we bring them together, they discover that other people like them from all these islands. And on stage, their collaboration is this force to be reckoned with.

Chen: All these artists share a connection back to Taiwan over 5000 years. So, share culture and language.

The music in the performance features a mix of different cultures and genres, as Tim Cole describes.

Cole: We’ll have two powerful artists from Taiwan, so be prepared. So, when we began the project, we wanted to create something beyond what we could do ourselves, something that is like spoke for this huge region, for the oceans, the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. So that’s why we just traveled to meet artists on their islands and ask them to share a song. And then we said, well, the island where we were just before, the Solomon Islands or Madagascar, and a musician from there. Sammy also shared a song. Would you like to listen to it and add something to it? And that way, we just spent three years traveling these songs around as everyone contributed. Added to it. All we said was just in the language of the island, where you’re from, in your language, and with the instruments that have been shaped over generations of living here, because they speak, you know, they speak for this place, they speak for nature. And that way, we’re able to create this, this album, our first album, we filmed it all night and made a feature film, which pretty much is just watching all these musicians play together. And then after that, they said, well, we want to come together now. And so that’s what we did. We brought people together. And the second album was done during Covid; there was a bit of online sharing in the concerts. Yeah.

Chen: I’d like to unpack one of the songs that everyone will see during the show, “Gasikara.” This was one of the songs that we developed during our field trips. We first met Ari, a master drummer from Papua New Guinea, and we went to his village and sat with him. he showed us the fate of coral bleaching, which is a great concern for his community. So, he contributed a rhythm to responding to these issues and gave us a mission to find other musicians across the islands who were also facing these issues. So, we took the rhythm to the west coast of Madagascar, to Taiwan, um, Hawaii, Solomon Islands, and other parts of the world for other musicians too who were also experiencing these coral bleaching firsthand. And it became a hip-hop song at the end, which is an amazing, upbeat song that you will see from our show.

Chen and Cole hope the show’s message will impact the audience.

Cole: We want them to experience some of the islands and the oceans from these artists in their hearts. That’s probably our biggest goal, is that when we feel connected, you know, personally to different parts of the world, and it can just be through seeing our show and having these moments of like epiphany or even, you know, through the music and, and the images that you see that when you next hear about these stories, that it’s not like something distant from you, it’s something that you have a relationship with now because we’re all facing the future of our planet together.

Chen: And, from a producing side, every time I look back to that moment, Tim and I decided to quit our jobs in 2015. It was just the two of us without any label or production company. It was the two of us trying to do what we can to respond to these issues. But now, when we are on the road with a busload of people, it is amazing to build this community of like-minded families; we hope we contributed something.

We’ve got a strong ensemble of artists right now. We’re excited about the tour and hope to come and see it. You really will walk away enriched.

 

Ticket Info

Small Island Big Song takes place at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, February 16, for a 7:30 p.m. show.

For tickets and more information, visit Newman Center’s website or call 303-871-7720.

This interview has been edited for continuity and clarity.

Photo credits: Gelée Lai and Small Island Big Song courtesy photo.

About the author: From the San Francisco Bay Area to the Big Island of Hawaii, Steve Roby has worked as a journalist, entertainment photographer, magazine editor, radio host (San Francisco, Hawaii, and Denver), and video documentarian. Since 1989, he has been writing about music and interviewing musicians. Roby is also a published author of three books, one on the L.A. Times Non-Fiction Hardcover Best Seller List.

Steve Roby

Steve Roby

From the San Francisco Bay Area to the Big Island of Hawaii, Steve Roby has worked as a music journalist, entertainment photographer, magazine editor, radio host (San Francisco, Hawaii, and Denver), and video documentarian. Roby is also a published author of three books, one on the L.A. Times Non-Fiction Hardcover Best Seller List. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone (x2), and Billboard. He’s now based in Denver.
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