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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

“Small Island Big Song” promotes climate awareness through music

Small Island Big Song’s live concert has toured to eighteen countries.
Small Island Big Song’s live concert has toured to eighteen countries.

The musical group “Small Island Big Song” celebrated the beauty of Pacific and Indian Ocean islands and their perspectives on the climate through music in Wilson Hall on Friday, March 8. The night began with a unique introduction to each artist; the dark stage was illuminated by the screen behind, displaying the home islands of each member as they entered playing their respective instruments. 

Each song highlighted a specific island from which one of the performers hailed, with that respective artist taking center stage, bright under the spotlight. There was a mixture of spoken word, singing, dance and instrumentals throughout the entire performance. The music was enchanting — it felt as if the audience was no longer in Vermont, but rather in the lush greenery of the tropics. 

The instruments were captivating and unique, with some audience members taking to the aisle to jump and sway with the music. Children, students and community members joined together to enjoy and move with the bright performance. 

Two Middlebury participants came up on stage to perform as well. Elio Farley ’24.5 shared his original written word with the audience. Their impactful words about the power of love in contentious political times were backed by soft music. 

Local Abenaki artist and Middlebury School of Abenaki Director Jesse Bowman Bruchac performed a song with the group, his guitar and voice contributing to the euphony filling the auditorium. During his piece, the audience seemed to sway along with the music, almost mimicking the tides of an ocean. 

Sammy, a vivacious man with an infectious personality, took center stage in the Madagascar songs to represent his homeland. The screen displayed video footage from Madagascar, with children singing and dancing along with him. The screen featured the towering Baobab trees native to the region, which were declared an endangered species in 2018

One of the most notable moments from the whole event was Mathieu Joseph’s dance performance; he donned a headwear piece representing the long-beaked dodo and transported the audience to the leafy rainforests of Mauritius. After removing the headpiece, he leapt into the air, flying through flips and twists. 

At the very end of the performance, the group explicitly called for action regarding climate change.

“We must protect our ocean, we must respect our ocean,” said Taiwanese and Atayal artist Yuma Pawang. “If there is no ocean, there is no life.”

Following this solemn but important message, the screen displayed footage of bleached coral — which occurs when corals become white in response to stressors such as changes in temperature, light or nutrients. Approximately 75% of global reefs have experienced bleaching as a result of global warming. The 10 most recent years have been the hottest on record, a trend that the performers said will continue unless nations significantly alter their economies and immediately transition away from fossil fuels. Pawang screamed at the end of this song, encapsulating the rage that so many feel over the climate crisis. Her voice was like a cold plunge into the water of the Pacific. 

The climate-focused group is made of artists who have chosen to maintain the cultural voice of their people, to sing in the language and to play the instruments of their land. These unique stories mixed with diverse contemporary styles establish a contemporary musical dialogue between cultures from Madagascar, Aotearoa, Taiwan, Mauritius, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti and Rapa Nui. 

The project was started by Taiwanese theater producer BaoBao Chen and Australian music producer and filmmaker Tim Cole following the fifth International Panel on Climate Change Report. Chen and Cole spent three years collaborating with artists in their homelands, recording songs across islands. They have achieved several accolades, including two award-winning albums, a feature film and a live concert that has toured to eighteen countries. 

Middlebury also hosted a panel and a film screening in the week before the performance. The film, filmed over three years across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, united ancient musical lineages to create a heartfelt plea for environmental awareness and cultural preservation from those on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Moderated by Chen, the panel featured performing artists and gave students and community members the opportunity to discuss the impacts of climate change and explore how the arts influence our relationship with the environment. 

Small Island Big Song’s performance at Middlebury was important and necessary to continue the dialogue surrounding the climate crisis. The islanders in Small Island Big Song experience first-hand the consequences of climate change. Their homes flood, their reefs lose color and their oceans acidify. In order to fully address the challenges of the climate crisis, they implore that we listen to the voices of those who experience it most directly.