Small Island Big Song

by Kevin Wierzbicki

Small Island Big Song - Feb. 10. 2024 - Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe, AZ

The collective known as Small Island Big Song put on a show February 10th that can only be described as stunning at one of the Phoenix area's most intimate venues, the Arizona State University-adjacent Tempe Center for the Arts. The house was perfect for the group's music which utilizes mostly acoustic instruments. The artists performing as Small Island Big Song have varied over the years; for this show the ensemble consisted of eight members from island nations including Taiwan, Mauritius, Madagascar, Papua and Tahiti. The performers are all indigenous peoples and their songs are sung mostly in native languages with the accompanying music played on traditional instruments. The songs are about taking care of the earth, particularly the ocean that connects all the peoples of our planet; this is explained through narration and commentary from the performers that is in English. Film clips from the islands, showing beautiful scenery and scenes of daily life like fishing, are projected behind the group as they perform.

The show began with the blowing of a conch shell and then the song "Marasudj" which was sort of an introduction to the entire ensemble. From there individual singers were spotlighted as the ensemble in its entirety played, beginning with "Pinangsanga" which featured vocalist Putad (each performer goes by only one name), a stellar vocalist from an indigenous tribe of Taiwan. Putad performed a mesmerizing dance as she sang to the song's rhythmic cadence. Up next was Emlyn, from Mauritius, whose song "Sarbon" began with her singing plaintively, no surprise since narration mentioned how an oil tanker was leaking off the coast of Mauritius, damaging coral reefs and much of the country's once-pristine marine park. Eventually the song took on a more vibrant mood complete with handclaps. For the headdress-clad Sammy, from Madagascar, the rhythm got even bolder as he and the ensemble's many percussionists whipped up a stomping beat over call-and-response vocals and additional singing from Putad. After another ensemble song called "Gasikara" the first half of the concert came to a jaw-dropping conclusion featuring Mathieu from Mauritius who wowed the crowd with his dance talent during "Dodo Dance." Lurking behind the rest of the ensemble at the beginning of the song and wearing an elaborate bird headdress, Mathieu's dodo slowly made its way to center stage where his interpretive dance ended (or did it?) with the dodo apparently experiencing death. Laying on the stage, Mathieu took off the headdress and sort of patted it in a farewell gesture. But "Dodo Dance" was far from over, as Mathieu began a whirlwind of dancing that also included backflips, a joyous display that was perhaps the highlight of the entire evening. If one were to interpret Mathieu's performance as representing how the dodo may be dead (the species is long extinct) but its spirit is not, then the same could apply to the troubled oceans of the world and a hope for recovery. Special guest Tate Walker, a Lakota citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota also appeared in the first half of the show to read from their work "#LandBack."

After a brief intermission singer Yuma, from Taiwan, sang the mournful "Phawha" and Putad got the spotlight again for "Aka Sawaden," a song that also had mournful elements but eventually a pop feel. Most of the performers played percussion instruments like log drums and hand-held drums and when Emlyn again took center stage to sing "Lapelasion Kadanse" she likened the heavy rhythm accompanying the song to a "Mauritius drum circle." Aremiti, of Tahiti, sat on the edge of the stage to sing "For the Metua," at least at the beginning of the song; eventually he got up and performed a joyous dance barefoot, with some very fancy footwork at the piece's end. Another special guest, flutist and storyteller Randy Kemp, a member of the Muscogee-Creek and Choctaw Nations of Oklahoma performed, and he asked the audience to do something unusual: Create the sound of a gentle rain by circularly rubbing one palm of their hands with the other. The effect was amazing and no doubt many went home and recreated the sound. The show moved to a close with three more songs, "Kinimale" where half the ensemble broke into dance, "Lament for a Dying Ocean" where Putad's vocals were filled with urgency and some anger, and closing number "Festival of the Living Ocean" which included more spectacular dancing from Mathieu with backflips and some breakdancing.

When all was said and done the audience had experienced the ensemble's talented singers and dancers, marveled at their colorful dress and costuming, viewed enticing scenery from the performer's homelands, and learned about the plight of these indigenous peoples and their quest to save the oceans that connect them and all of us. The Small Island Big Song show definitely made a deep impression on the crowd and while many will just remember what fantastic entertainment it was, others will no doubt be spurred to activism.

Small Island Big Song will remain on tour in the U.S. through April, 2024, including stops in Seattle, Lansing, Pittsburgh, Boston, Raleigh and 10 other cities. Find remaining tour dates here.

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