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Small Island Big Song – A Taiwanese Calling

Small Island Big Song – A Positive Agent of Change

As an inherent introvert, I admire risk takers. People who step out of their comfort zone and do things that are brave, or those who are compelled selflessly to do something good in the world and make an impact. Bao Bao Chen is one of these people. Having spent a delightful 30 minutes in her company, I could have spoken to her for days. To me, she is a positive agent of change, inspiring others through the medium of music and the arts, in her pursuit of raising awareness of the impact of Climate Change. If there were more Bao Bao Chen’s in the world, it would be a better place!
BaoBao Chen, Small Island Big Song co-founder, producer and manager. Photo by Tony Tsai

You may not have heard of Small Island Big Song, but they are a big deal. Currently on a US Tour, their ethos is to bring attention to the plight of the ocean and its Pacific Island communities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report in 2015 highlighted the increased risks that small islands in the Pacific face. They share many similarities such as geographical remoteness, narrow resources, and economic vulnerability. The reality is that some of the most biodiverse, isolated communities are suffering due to the actions of developed nations. Bao Bao Chen is a Taiwanese theatre producer and together with her Australian husband, music producer/filmmaker Tim Cole, they created the concept of Small Island Big Song. They spent over 8 years visiting artists on 16 island nations, recording music often with indigenous instruments and songs steeped in the traditions of their communities. With 2 award-winning albums, a feature film, and a world-touring concert to their name, they are making waves across the world with their passion for and commitment to sharing stories and raising awareness.

Small Island Big Song _Our Island_ tour in WOMADelaide, Australia. Photo by Samra Teague (1)
Small Island Big Song _Our Island_ tour in WOMADelaide, Australia. Photo by Samra Teague (1)

Sea Change

With such a big task at hand, I was intrigued to know, how did it all start? Bao Bao tells me that it was a calling that happened relatively quickly. Bao Bao and Tim were living and working in Australia and Tim had been working with Indigenous communities for over 15 years. On reading the IPCC Report, they knew they had to act. Within 1 month, they quit their jobs and with a little money, started the journey from island to island with just their microphones and cameras.

I admire the freedom in their decision, to ensure that the end result is creative, emergent, and honest. This is clearly felt in the music and authenticity of the films of Small Island Big Song. From Madagascar to Rapa Nui each artist sings in their own language, playing traditional instruments, often combined with an artist from a different country, layering the music together to create a new sound. Their commitment to nature stands out as each video is recorded in a natural location be it the beach, the ring of a volcano or the mangroves. Bao Bao tells me that they made a conscious decision to go directly to the musicians, bringing their recording gear to where they live, it’s through this process that they are able to capture human connection through nature to create powerful art.

Community and Indigenous History

As a Producer on the project, Bao Bao plays a different role to the musicians. “The thing that I enjoy the most is building bridges between people. At the time, we did that through the recordings and the songs, but now on tour we are able to bring people physically together. These live tours are where a lot of the magic happens. “So for me it’s something that as a producer challenges me, and it inspires me.” On the road, they have a tour bus full of people and through building a like-minded community Bao Bao feels that they are able to support each other at this critical time of climate change. All of the musicians that they work with have made a choice to continue their lineage with the traditional music that they perform. “We are so proud to actually know them and see that they are not alone. They may be only one of a few people in their countries doing these things and when they are connected with each other, there is a lot of support and dialogue about how our culture is moving forward.”

This sense of community is not isolated to the current Pacific Islanders but embedded in the history of the first Taiwanese migrant population. I was fascinated to hear from Bao Bao about the Austronesian Expansion Theory. “One of the first projects that we did together, we travelled to Vanuatu, an island community in the South Pacific. One of the elders asked me ‘where are you from’? I said ‘I am from Taiwan’. He said ‘I know Taiwan, because my ancestors come from Taiwan’. I couldn’t believe it and I kept saying ‘are you sure, are you sure it’s not Thailand’?” The Austronesian Expansion Theory denotes that around 3000 BCE, a mass migration spurred by population growth launched from the coast of Taiwan. Crossing the oceans of the Indo-Pacific, the indigenous Taiwan people settled in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Madagascar spreading the language, culture, and technology to new parts of the world. For Bao Bao one of the inspirations behind Small Island Big Song is to talk about the connection that Taiwanese indigenous people have across the world, offering a narrative about Taiwanese identity that goes beyond current news about political tensions. “There is a deep story between Taiwan and indigenous people that is still so present now. When we are on tour, we have everyone discovering words and rhythms that they all share”.

Small Island Big Song LIVE at 2023 TIFA National Concert Hall, Taiwan. Photo by Tony Tsai (1)
Small Island Big Song LIVE at 2023 TIFA National Concert Hall, Taiwan. Photo by Tony Tsai (1)

Changing Climates

Bao Bao knows that there are a lot of activists and scientists doing what they can to raise awareness of Climate Change, but it’s vital to remember that arts and culture remains one of the most important agents of change. In their show Bao Bao does not want to point fingers and say this is right or wrong. “I think it’s important that as performers we go to a space to accompany people through it. There are a lot of ways to deal with climate issues and anxiety, and ours as a performing arts group is to play a role that brings people to a lot of the emotions that they may be afraid to go to on their own. I think through the songs, dance, and visuals that we have on stage, as an entity we are united, and we can explore complex emotions. We hope that our shows inspire action, but we don’t say what action.”

After their big tour in the US, the next project for Small Island Big Song involves taking over cities to reach as many people as possible. I for one can’t wait to see what they do next, and I am pleased to say that Taiwan’s cities will be included in the next chapter.

COT readers, watch this space!
You can view films, purchase albums and follow updates from Small Island Big Song via their website which includes links to all Social Media channels.

Gemma Green is a Taipei resident since January 2020. Gemma has a background in UK NGO management and community work, which has allowed her to use her time volunteering for a number of projects in Taiwan.

Keen to learn more about Taiwanese society and its people she is passionate about writing, photography and the stories that are within us all.

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