Tim Cole, an experienced music producer and film director, is the key person for the audio and visual production in the “Small Island Big Song” project. He always has strong feelings about “sounds”. The sounds of typing on a keyboard, sounds from television, the sounds we hear in our daily life could all become his inspiration for storytelling. When he started to learn about indigenous cultures, he decided to make use of his sense and sensitivity about sounds to help record the precious cultural heritages. Over the past 15 years, he has been creating documentaries of World Music in inland Australia and islands in the Pacific Ocean.
SIBS aiming to collaborate with top musicians around the world
The destinations and musicians listed on the SIBS website are remarkable. Tim and BaoBao have planned the three initial phases of the project, including Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, and Madagascar.
Musicians from Taiwan, for example, include Anu Kaliting Sadipongan, the winner of the Best Indigenous Singer of 2014 Golden Melody Awards (Taiwan’s premier music awards), and Wayne Wang and his Dullan Island Studio (a major hub for Taiwan’s Indigenous music scene). From Papua New Guinea, there are Telek, a singer-songwriter who represented PNG at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and Airileke Ingram, a master drummer who was the Artistic Director of the cultural program for the recent Pacific Games.
After the initial stage, Easter Island, Solomon Islands, Indonesia, and The Territory of Guam will be their next destinations. Impressively, what they do is not just travel and record. They also make efforts in research and studies, and have contact with professionals in the field of Pacific music or the Austronesian languages, including experts from Taidong University, Honolulu University, and New Zealand University.
“Only when the music is handled correctly does it have power and ‘rightness’ to it.”
During the interview, Tim and BaoBao kept sharing their passion for World Music. When Tim presented the films he has made to us, we also clearly felt the vision and passion.
Did you see the women wearing leaves as their clothing? It is hard for us to imagine their life. Tim then further shared more of what he had learned from these ancient tribes.
When he travels and visits musicians around the world, not every musician speaks English, so he often needs local culture guides to assist. “It’s important for us to find people who have the authority to speak for that community. Only when the music is handled correctly does it have power and ‘rightness’ to it,” said Tim. The guides not only help with translation but also tell him about the protocols that should be followed.
Some songs of the tribes should not be uploaded and published in any form. Those songs were created to build a “knowledge database” shared only inside the tribes. By singing about the land, it helped the tribal people to remember how to cross the desert and find water. The songs were usually about how animals move across the land, for example, singing, “The snake went along the river, hid under the big rock and shed it’s skin, and it then went to the old tree.”
If you knew all the songs for an area (which took days to be sung entirety), you could actually prove your ownership, because only local people who lived on the land for generations knew what the land looked like before. For instance, during the two hundred years when many English immigrants moved to Australia, many lands belonging to the indigenous people were occupied. 50 years ago, a way for them to claim back their lands through the courts was to “sing their songs!” Therefore, if the songs were leaked to outsiders, it was like their assets were stolen.
Of course, there are festive songs that can be shared with everyone too. Tim shared a song themed “A man’s pants kept falling”. The lyrics repeated during the song, “There was a man who was too skinny to keep his pants on.” “You thought they were singing something sacred but actually it was a funny song!” Seeming to be truly enjoying his job, Tim said, “Many tribes music has been lost. I remember that there was a language that only 3 people spoke. I feel so lucky to be able to record the very last person who could sing in that language.”
“Cultural preservation” that evolves with the times.
What Tim does is more than recording. For example, he has tried to extract the chords used in the indigenous songs, and composed new melodies in his mind. He then recorded the melody by singing, gave it to musicians to transcribe it into music sheets, and had the musicians perform the song with different modern instruments. By this, indigenous music has the opportunity to transform itself in a modern way. “We provide a modern touch to the ancient music, and make it a bit more ‘mainstream’.” After all, World Music is not about historic documentaries for the Discovery channel, but is a genre in the commercial market.
We also learned a different perspective of “cultural preservation” from Tim.
The stunning short film, “Water Music” he showed us (see above), was the winner of the 2015 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Recording the traditional women’s dance from a tribe in the Republic of Vanuatu, the film showed local women wearing clothes made from leaves, and singing traditional songs with their hands hitting water in rhythm. The local authority invited Tim to produce the film for them, so that they could sell DVDs to tourists to support the local economy.
We couldn’t help but raise the question: Has “cultural preservation” become merely a tool for commercial purposes?
Tim puts it another way. He thinks that under globalization, the ancient tribes will make timely changes and step forward eventually. When he first arrived in Papua New Guinea, he found that watching American dramas and playing soccer were popular among the local people. “I realized that ‘cultural preservation’ still depended on themselves. It should be their choice. No matter what, good or bad in an outsider’s point of view, indigenous people should have the right to choose what kind of life they want to live. No one has the right to ask them to maintain their traditional lifestyle for cultural preservation.” Just like how Tim integrates modern elements with indigenous music, his own methods to interpret World Music is a kind of “cultural preservation” that evolves with the times.
It seems like SIBS will become a long-term project, with the participation of musicians around the world. Tim said excitedly, “That’s why we started it! Why not do something that is impossible, something that is big, and something that excites people’s imagination! We don’t know what will happen in the future, but we are sure that this is what we want to do!” Sitting beside him, BaoBao continued with her eyes sparkling, “I think, if we don’t do it, who else will?”
Tim Cole is an Australian Filmmaker and Music Producer specializing in cross cultural indigenous arts projects – filmed, recorded and produced in the field, independently. His work has led him to some of the most remote and unique cultures of the Asia/Pacific region producing award winning projects including “Tabaran” filmed in the shadow of a Papua New Guinean volcano, “Pintupi”, with the last aboriginal tribe to leave their nomadic lifestyle and “Vanuatu Women’s Water Music”, directing a feature film capturing the unique culture of the Banks Islands, Vanuatu.
As a visual and sound designer, Tim has also toured with theatre productions to Broadway (New York), Southbank (London), a Bullring (Barcelona), Sydney Opera House, and over 30 venues around the world.
BaoBao is a visual-story teller and publicist from the east coast of Taiwan. As an adventure-seeking traveler, she has attracted 150k followers on her facebook page, BaoBao Outback Adventurer, while she was shortlisted by the Australian Tourism Board – 2013 Best Job in the World campaign, as an ‘Outback Adventurer’.
BaoBao has been sharing the journey traveling through inland Mongolia, touring with bands to nearly twenty festivals around Australia, working at the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, doing film work for Vanuatu in the South Pacific, also working on music recording / producing projects throughout the central Australian desert.