Interview: Q&A with Tim Cole / Small Island Big Song – Islands’ Musical Treasures

In times like these, we all seek some additional and encouraging inspiration, so that’s when music comes to the rescue. Projects like Small Island Big Song are manna from heaven if you are looking for extra and/or deeper meanings in what you listen to.

The “oceanic” (in all respects) multimedia and cross-cultural adventure in which Australian producer and filmmaker Tim Cole and Taiwanese producer, tour and social media manager BaoBao Chen embarked back in 2014, is making positive waves. It is buoying up the spirit and cause of the Austronesian island communities: millions of people sharing a common linguistic, cultural and technological background who are populating the islands scattered in the vast maritime region that lies between the Indian and Pacific Ocean from Madagascar to South-East Asia and Polynesia.

Moved by an aspiration towards cultural and environmental preservation, Tim and BaoBao brought together dozens of musicians living in that region and experiencing on a daily basis the island life struggles, from climate change to tradition erosion.

Working together, collecting stories, recording and filming sessions with those artists, achieved the Small Island Big Song original aim and inception, reinforcing the imaginary cultural bridge traversing the Oceans and connecting the shores of the Austronesian islands.

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Tim Cole, so as to get a more in-depth as well as a broader perspective over the project, which was recently enriched by a second episode (Our Island), and its mission and musicians involved.

Rhythm Passport: Since the first time I read about the project, I immediately thought that it was something extraordinary. I’m not only talking about the pure and simple numbers, like the musicians involved, countries/islands featured or kilometres/miles you have travelled… But also, the project’s aims and inspiring stories behind each single “chapter”.

So, I’m wondering if you can briefly describe the idea behind Small Island Big Song and how and when the project was set in motion?

Tim Cole: The concept for Small Island Big Song began whilst BaoBao and I were living in Central Australia. I had a job working at Karma, the central Australian Aboriginal Media Association as the in-house senior music producer. And part of this job, which I loved, we both really loved, was recording traditional songs. And that’s going out into the community, into the desert and recording songlines – songs that have been passed down through generations to remind people of culture, their connection to the land and passing down knowledge.

It was after one of those days, we’d listened to the radio out in the desert at night and we heard the IPCC report, the fifth IPCC report [the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. It was just… it just shook us! The predictions of sea level rise across the Pacific, and other predictions, and it was just clear that we both had to bring something to that issue. After this day of recording songs, we said, “well this is something we can bring to this issue – record music that’s about a relationship, you know, like songlines.” And we’d also discovered this connection which Taiwan shares with the island nations across the Pacific in the Indian Ocean, particularly Vanuatu, after being there. And we thought, “Wow, this songline we could create, with these artists, like, help them to create a song line that tells the story of the ocean, particularly these islands.” Which we heard were, you know, directly threatened by climate change and sea level rise.

Rhythm Passport: Being based in Europe, we hardly hear about the so-called “Indo-Pacific connection” or the Austronesian migration. Can you explain to us how and how much the cultural seeds have spread around and taken root in such a vast region stretching between Madagascar, Hawaii and Easter Island?

Tim Cole: Around the same time that we heard that IPCC report, we discovered this connection shared across the Indian and Pacific Ocean- that is a huge area that’s over half the Earth’s surface! And that’s a connection that… a lot of the first people to settle these islands can be followed, and traced over 5000 years, back to Taiwan.

We learned that when we’re in Vanuatu doing a music project there with the water women of Vanuatu, the banks, islands, and there, they said, we share a connection to Taiwan, and they told us this story. It was just incredible to think that this huge region shares this common ancestry, people sailing across seas, the first people to cross the horizon in oceangoing craft, these huge outrigger canoes… And that was one thing, with all… by travelling and meeting people to share this heritage, it’s a powerful way to talk about our relationship to this region, you know, before colonisation, before the written word, and particularly because songs were the way that knowledge was passed down, like the songlines of Indigenous Australia. Anthropologists have called it the Austronesian. They’ve got many names, they’re the names of the different indigenous tribes and people that we met. 

Rhythm Passport: It’s crystal clear that Small Island Big Song is a good and proper multimedia project, where the sound and visual dimensions complete one another. 

Can you disclose some aspects of the technical side of the project and what is involved in recording the audios and videos?

Tim Cole: I began my career in music while I was at film school and ended up sitting for hours in the studio then going and doing films, so I always ended up doing the music videos, and designing the concert visuals and producing the album, doing the live sound… And it struck me that actually the two interweave, that the visual aspect and the music are just as woven together and important.

When we left, and it was just the two of us, we had a couple of cameras and our sound recording gear and, and the two of us would arrive with someone. And we gave them a simple question. We said, “Can you share a song which you’re proud to represent your heritage with, you know, and yourself, and take us to a place in nature to record it?” And when we arrived there, we set up a couple of cameras and the mics and just started tracking the music in nature. Later on, we sat down with it all, but then we took that song to another island, met another musician and did a similar thing, and then shared the previous song and they did an overdub there on the spot. And that was the whole project: three years travelling around meeting these artists sharing songs, recording in their homelands.

Our rule was only traditional instruments and languages, because we really wanted to produce an album that was connected to the story of place, because the language and the instruments have been shaped through living there in those environments. So even just singing in that language and playing those instruments, has a resonance to nature, to those places, and then recording in nature, as well, by the people that represent that heritage on their land.

We’re just trying to make it as powerful as we can, and filming it. And then I just sat down at the end with hours of film and tracks and multi tracks and songs, and edited. And the album, and the songs revealed themselves in the film, there was never any script. We didn’t begin with any songs, everything just grew through the process. But all this is the first album, we are presently releasing our second album, called Our Island.

Rhythm Passport: The songs that you have already released are not only extremely diverse under a cultural perspective, but also considering the music styles the musicians play. Listening to the album, you can spot pop songs as well as reggae, folk, hip-hop and so on…

How did you choose the musicians involved in the project and did you give them any “guidelines” before recording their performance?

Tim Cole: On the first album, as I mentioned, we’d meet an artist, and we’d organise them beforehand. And we always sought out artists who were professional musicians who had careers, partly because they understood the music industry, they were dedicated to their craft, they wouldn’t be taken advantage of because they know how the music industry works and it would benefit their career as well. And we didn’t want to direct them or shape them, we wanted them to be free to do what they wanted to do. The only rule we said was “sing in your language, the language of your homeland, your heritage, and play the instruments of your heritage, because these speak of your relationship to your homeland” and as far as the musical style, we didn’t give any rules. We let them choose that. And also the songs they chose to overdub on, we let them choose that as well. There’s a hip hop song – one of the musicians, Arileke, contributed beats from his MPC. But his take was, “well, I’m playing my traditional drums, that are my patterns that I’ve recorded myself. And I’m using this technology, yeah, sure. But our culture is contemporary. It has its traditions, and its past, but it’s in the moment now expressing itself. And it knows where it’s going, and I’m not in control of it.”

We really surrendered to the musicians’ choices because we wanted to create something that was beyond our imagination. So hence, there is diversity in styles, but I think that the theme of the project/recording sort of binds it together.

We chose musicians who had all made a choice to really keep their cultural lineage alive. Musicians who still know and sing in their language, who know how to play their instruments, who have listened and learned from elders, who are working with kids and passing music along. This gets a bit esoteric, but we really believe that their music, their language, their instruments, carry the memory back to the first person to live in their homelands and play an instrument and speak, and begin a language which has been shaped through living over generations and generations in that place. And by keeping alive those music traditions, even contemporary forms- you know, reggae and hip hop- the instruments, the language, there’s an essence of it which carries through and is telling a story about their relationship to this place over the years. And we may not be able to translate it in our heads and into thoughts, but it’s a feeling and it permeates the music, and that’s really what was our goal. 

Rhythm Passport: You just released a second album. Can you mention and talk about some of its highlights or collaborations?

Tim Cole: About our second album. And this is an exciting time, because it just came out two weeks ago. It’s different from the first album, which was recorded by travelling to meet the musicians in their homelands, and then taking that recording to another island to meet another musician, who recorded on top without having met the other musician. This album, we wanted very much to be driven by a core group of musicians, many of whom are on the first album, musicians who identify and represent the culture of their islands. And to bring them together and for them to form relationships and share their culture, share their concerns, and absolutely concerns about the climate issue and about our environment and the breakdown of our ecosystem. I mean, this is the theme of our album, and that’s right up front. But then, we’re artists, we’re musicians, you know, we’re not policymakers or scientists, journalists. We write music, we produce albums, we create concerts. So how do we bring that into these concerts in a way that’s true to our art form? And so that’s what we’ve been up to together.

Right now, we’re actually in America working on the concert to release the album, which took about a year and a half to make We had online meetings to share recordings all from our islands, from Madagascar, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Marshall Islands, Taiwan, Tahiti, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Borneo and then in Taiwan, where Baobao and I were living in this beautiful house her parents put together in central Taiwan, in nature. I sat there editing it together on the computer. We’ve just released this album “Our Island”, which we’re so absolutely proud of. Again, mostly in languages and traditional instruments, but we loosened it up a bit, you know, that felt right to use an acoustic guitar. There’s bass guitar, because that’s Putad from Taiwan, that’s her first instrument.

So “Our Island” and as you read this it’s out, check it out on Spotify. But listen to it properly please. The journey begins with the conch shell, then you’ll meet the musicians in the first song and it will take you on a journey through all their islands into the sadness of some of the really tragic things that are happening on their islands, but it’s also really uplifting. There’s so much we want to say – beauty and celebration and surfing and love for these places as well, which we really want to come through.

Rhythm Passport: Another significant aspect of Small Island Big Song is the fact that the different cultures and traditions featured in the project are bindingly linked to the environmental discourse, exposing and highlighting both the deep bond that islanders have with nature and the undeniable consequences of the climate crisis. 

Taking into consideration the feedback you have received… How much do you think people have eventually understood and are moved to action by Small Island Big Song‘s message?

Tim Cole: Yeah, absolutely, this is the most significant focus of the outcome of our work, what we can bring to this issue, climate change. And it’s not just climate change. You know, it’s the plastic pollution of the ocean, it’s the chemical spread everywhere. It’s so many issues… principally, we are all experiencing the breakdown of our ecosystem, and it crushes us. And what can we do as artists, as songwriters to address this issue? So, through these meetings online, I mean, there are ways to actually sort of comfort each other over the stress and the concerns, inspire each other, and to write music, you know, about these issues. It’s a tricky thing, how you balance it all. We’re not worried about being didactic or putting it up front, if that’s what feels right, yeah, we’ll say it like that. But also there are times where things are subtle, and there are metaphors as well, it’s sort of art. And as musicians and songwriters and concert and film artists, we really feel we have got a role to play with helping shape and guide and define culture to people, because it’s from culture and our personal relationship to culture and our sense of self- our personal narrative- that we make our choices from.

Artists have a really vital role to play in helping comfort, or guide, people. We all know how important music is to us in different moods. We hope our album can play that role. That’s one reason we’re not shy to put it up front. People are seeking this sort of discourse in their culture and their music and their art they’re listening to, and yeah, that’s what we’re all about. But at the same time, we want to make incredible music that brings our cultures together. Because we’re musicians, and that’s what we do, and we want to enjoy it. And we want to make the most of it, the connections we form with each other. As a producer, I really want to work with musicians who have a passion for what they do, who are dedicated to their craft, and want to create great art for the greatest of causes.  

So, it’s fitting it all in, you know- we’re really concerned about these issues, but at the same time we’re getting on, we’ve got to live our lives and not totally crush ourselves with the feelings about it all, and also lift ourselves through our music and support for each other. And support for the listener, too, because music only lives through the interaction- it’s in the air, it’s floating, it needs to be heard, it needs to be of impact for it to have meaning. And that’s the role that the listener plays. It’s part of that cycle.

Rhythm Passport: Music is a crucial medium when it comes to inspiring people. Despite not being politicians nor activists, musicians’ voices and their social/political/civic calls to arms are often heard loud and clear by their listeners. Do you feel something similar is happening with the climate emergency as well? Since you are part of the “category”, what should artists do to raise awareness and trigger some actions by their listeners/followers?

Tim Cole: Well, this is to be honest, from my point of view about other musicians, I think far too few are raising their voices. It’s absolutely the single biggest issue confronting us all. It’s the issue of our times, which we’re all called to respond to, and I don’t hear a lot of songs about these issues. They don’t need to directly, as you mentioned, be a call to arms. I mean, that’s good, too. Like, political activist songs. But, you know, I’m not going to mention names, but some huge artists put out their album and it’s “another album about my breakup.” And “me, me, me, me, me, me.” And those songs are important because people relate to them and it helps them with their own personal stuff, but there are bigger issues going on besides “me me me.” We’re not huge, but here we are putting these issues up front and doing what we can. And in some ways, it is “me me me” because these are our personal feelings. We’re really concerned, fearful, depressed. And we’ve been able to help each other with these feelings and we really hope that the listener can connect with that- not so much like it’s a call to arms, but it’s “Hey, we’re on the same page”. We get it, you know. Like Vaiteani‘s song “Hiro’a”, about her memories from childhood, about coral bleaching and the possible loss of the coral reefs, and as she ties it into her story, people can relate to that and it can help support and comfort and inspire and give strength through that. 

Anyway, other artists, if you’re reading this, get onto it- don’t be shy! We can do something. We’ve got an important role to play right now.

I mean, of course, artists are just so individualistic, and you can’t tell them what to do- like cats. So as for recording our album, it’s about creating space for them to feel free to express themselves and then to work with the direction they’re taking. I don’t know what other artists are going to do, and also people too, don’t like to be told what to do. So that’s why I really hope people can relate to our art and they can follow the journey themselves and find their own meaning in the music. 

Which is hard, seeing that it’s all in languages you don’t understand. But we have this booklet that goes through all the translations. All the artists share their feelings about their songs. And we also have other words and writings about all these issues to help explore them and find our relationship to it. That’s our way. 

Rhythm Passport: Bringing together people and artists from such distant islands in such socially-distanced times might add an additional layer of complexity to the (I presume) already complicated logistics of the project. How did you cope and solve the travel and distancing issues in the last two years?

Tim Cole: This has been a huge issue, how to manage all this during a pandemic. We were actually going to do the album two years ago together- we had booked a wonderful studio, Sanctuary Sounds in Australia, on the beach. But the pandemic started, and we couldn’t. So, we had to sort of refine a new strategy online through zoom meetings, home recordings, sharing tracks around, and we remotely recorded the album. And then organising how to come together! We postponed the major US tour we’re about to begin now, by a year. And BaoBao, the manager of the project, did what she had to do, to get all these musicians from the most difficult places like Madagascar, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, and even Taiwan, in a way that manages COVID well. And managing to get them into the US when all the embassies were closed, you couldn’t get personal interviews for the visas, oh man, and then flights changing all the time and all the restrictions… But she and we got everyone here, and we’re in the studio right now rehearsing for our tour. And it is extraordinary. This is the first time these musicians- some of us have met before- but it’s the first time as a group we’ve all met. The musical language dialogue going on the way the songs are taking new form, now we actually can look at each other and communicate, yeah, we’re really looking forward to the concerts. Another stressful wait to get them on stage, but enjoyable at the same time. Yeah, we’ve just got to go for this. We’re taking all the precautions for COVID. But, you know, climate change is not stopping and  for our message, for what we’re doing we need to connect with people about it. And we can’t wait. We just can’t wait. So we’re all going for it and you know, socially distancing and taking all the vaccines and all those things, but yeah, we’re going to get on stage and sing it aloud. Out loud. Particularly Putad is gonna sing it loud, I know. 

The show we’re working on here that we’re about to launch is a concert with seven core musicians and one climate activist, spoken word artist Selena Leem. And it’s, you know, absolutely a concert. But it’s also a narrative concert, there are segues of spoken word, there’s really dynamic visuals, a lot of nature sounds, there are really uplifting, danceable moments, celebrating: there’s moments that pull you into some sad places. We’re not shy to say this is what’s going on. But then we’ll sort of like, hold your hand when we’re there, through the singing and through the performance. And then, celebrate again. It’s all going on at the same time, but we need to be serious about what we’re facing. You know, which is the ecological destruction of our planet. Right now. And it’s our generation that’s got to make the difference. That’s on our watch right now.

But we’re musicians, we’re artists, so at the same time we’ve got to put a show together that is true to us- that has a lot of different spaces and dynamics in it, that we’re proud of. “Our Island” is the show we’re touring the US with for four months. 

But we also want to take the show off the stage as well, and share our stories. So here on Vashon Island, where we are currently, we’re working with an educational consultant, Andrew, to develop workshops and panels that the different universities we’re going to have already booked. So as well as the show, we’ll be delivering these panels on cultural and climate issues. You know, not just directly about the environment, but about us, as humans with our cultures, how it all interfaces and how we impact each other, and about the particularly unique perspectives that the artists identifying as Indigenous artists bring to this issue. And that’s what we will be taking to Europe too, and festivals in the future, we’ll be doing outreach programs as well as our concert. You know, it’s a way to strengthen the stories and experiences that help shift enlightened personal narratives, so that we feel in control of the choices we’re making. So that we feel the bigger perspective. That’s our goal. 

Rhythm Passport: Since your first release, people and media fully embraced and literally loved the project. You won several prizes and I think I’ve never read a bad review about your work. What do you think is (or are) the strength/s of Small Island Big Song?

Tim Cole: Like for me personally, as the producer, I really feel the strength is in collaboration, and particularly in collaboration with a diverse group of people that share a common centre. So, our common centre is a few things, it’s, you know, we’re all concerned about these issues, the environmental impact of us as humans on the planet, and what we’re facing right now. Also, this connection we share from our islands, love for our islands and a lot of people surfing and all these things, musicians, artists, but then as the wedges go out from the circle, as we extend, the separation gets bigger and bigger and bigger, like it’s a huge circle. There is lots of diversity, the music styles from their different cultures, their own personal tastes and musical styles. From Putad, who’s in a heavy sort of grunge band, to Emlyn who’s really dedicated to the Sega tradition of her island, Saljaljui, who’s a cultural musician, bringing that into her album, Airileke with these beats and hip hop- really diverse styles, but yet with this common centre. And I feel the richer a diverse group of artists are in collaboration, yet with that focus, with that centre, the more powerful the work is. And integrity. It has an integrity. Integrity is a funny thing that you can’t measure. You can’t claim to have it unless you’ve really got it. It’s like a beard. If I said, “I’ve got this great beard,” and everyone looks at me and they say “I can’t see a beard there”, then I haven’t got a beard. Integrity is like that, you know, you can’t claim to have it, it’s there or it’s not and you can’t fake it. But through working with these musicians, artists who are dedicated to their craft to carry this cultural tradition into what they do, it’s just there. And I really believe that’s what the strength is: the collaboration of these artists. And as a producer, that’s the most exciting for me, because my work is nothing without anyone to work with. And they’re extraordinary musicians.

Rhythm Passport: Have you also spotted any aspect or element you can possibly improve or do differently?

Tim Cole: Absolutely, there are elements that can improve. A lot of it has been BaoBao and I together- up until now, just the two of us. Yeah, we’ve got some strengths, like I’ve been mixing music for 30 years, so I know those skills. BaoBao’s an extraordinary manager, project manager- and she took a lot of the images on the album [art] and did the cinematography to, and the film, the first film. But you know, there’s lots of areas- concert production, well, production I’m on to, but like theatre direction… More filmmaking elements that we could really improve, like all the music is always growing as different artists come in and we all learn from each other and develop. And also, as it grows, the collaboration grows too and more people are coming on board. Like our incredible artists and designers, like the people who do promotion and help with those sorts of behind-the-scenes stuff, who are also incredibly creative in helping us. Look, you know, I hope it does keep growing, and we’ve got some pathways to really develop it into a bigger stage production that we can work on with more creatives and people to empower the voice in the collaboration.

Rhythm Passport: We talked about the second album and upcoming tour… Are there any other plans for the near future for Small Island Big Song?

Tim Cole: We do see a pathway to developing and growing our show with the artists, and there’s a huge number of people we’ve worked with over the years that are all part of this ongoing journey, but the artists we’re with at the moment are developing it into a major festival piece that we can take to big arts festivals. Our dream is to really have an impact on a big city and to work with the city to look at these issues of climate change, our relationship to the city- through our music, through putting on a concert, through the outreach programs, through working with, you know, hopefully other people there, who do urban design stuff to help really shape it. Now, the pathway there is, we’re working with a wonderful theatre director called Nigel Jamison to develop a bigger show- through a production company in New York, called The Office, who develop these sorts of major festival pieces. We’re putting out a pitch at the moment to try and get some sponsorship, some commissions from different major festivals. So, anyone reading this- Manchester Festival, you got to pick this up, Small Island Big Song. 

And, you know, we’re going to remind you that you are living on a small island. And even your city is like an island- you’re a community, what effect are you having on your environment? And how can we address that, how can we look at that, and then tie it all into concert- into music, into performance, into art, into culture because it’s through culture that shapes our relationship to our environment. Just as the environment shapes our culture and work. You know there’s something wrong with our culture, our Western culture, because our planet, our ecosystem that supports all of us is collapsing. The evidence is clear. It’s right there in front of us and yet we sort of push on, like, I don’t know. But it’s real and we got to act on it now. You know, at the same time, yeah, we want to have great times and get into good music and good performances, and we want to do that. But we’ve also got to be real and face up to this issue. We’ve got to change our culture. We’re going to change our relationship to our Earth to one that sustains us all, and not just us, but the animals and everything, where’s their voice in this?

Rhythm Passport: In a few words, how would you introduce Small Island Big Song to someone who has never heard of it before?

Tim Cole: Small Island Big Song is a collaboration of Islander musicians, reminding us all that we share one small island. You know, Our Island.


Photo ©: Small Island Big Song