Soundscapes After Hours

Music, environmentalism, and islands. Enter these three words into a Google search field, and you will encounter a variety of results. Most have to do with the connection between the environment and the “music world.” Articles on environmentalism in music, lists of songs about the environment, information about composers and performers who place the Earth at the heart of their music. Scroll down a bit further, and Islands will begin to enter into the mix. An announcement about Disney’s recent film Moana, and shortly thereafter, links to several academic books, including:

Island Songs: A Global Perspective by Godfrey Baldaccino, UNESCO’s Co-Chair in Island Studies and Sustainability. The Oxford Handbook of Popular Music in the Nordic Countries (an unexpected title, which makes me wonder if Google’s search engines register “Iceland” as “Island”). And, rather surprisingly, a book called Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism by Richard Grove. Green Imperialism meticulously lays out (on the one hand) the historical connections between the evolution of natural science disciplines in nineteenth century Europe, and (on the other) the role of islands in the development of these new ideas. Islands, Grove writes, were used as laboratories and field sites. They were places where the colonial imagination had free reign, where “nature” could be explored without restriction, and where tropical biodiversity easily supported the expansion of intellectual horizons which we now associate with the European Enlightenment.

The range of search results yielded by “music, environmentalism, islands” surprised me. I was equally surprised, though, that in the several dozen results that Google presented first, none seemed to deal with all three fields — music, environmentalism, islands — at the same time. Perhaps this is to be expected, though. After all, if you mapped out these three words in a Venn diagram, the common space between them is likely to be quite small. And besides, the more keywords you are dealing with, the less likely it is that you will find a good deal of material that contains them all. Is it not so?

To some people, music, environmentalism and islands encompass three very different realms of life. They may occasionally cross paths, but those intersections certainly do not merit the attention of an ongoing conversation, or a research project, or a cultural initiative, or a life’s work. Many might agree, but I believe that to say so is the simply path of least resistance — and we would all have something to lose if everyone thought this way.

The first week of our discussion group, Soundscapes After Hours, began with- 1) a reading on the impacts of climate change on “Small Island Developing States,” 2) several songs by a South Pacific fusion group named Te Vaka, and 3) an attendance of educators, activists, musicians, and practitioners of environmental sustainability. We had been brought together because we were all interested in music and environmental issues. We were all linked to the island which we shared — a nation (if not a UN-recognized state) in the Caribbean named Puerto Rico. We were interested in, or perhaps intrigued by, the ways in which music and the environment were related. We were also curious about what we might learn from the environmental, musical, and activist geographies of the Pacific Islands. We each may have joined the group with already developed ideas about these subjects. But as is the case with any good conversation, the authority of these ideas really only comes about when we investigate them together.

The music which formed the heart of the first week’s discussion was excerpted from an album called Nukukehe, by the above-mentioned South Pacific group, Te Vaka. Te Vaka dedicated the album to environmental organizations throughout the Pacific. It was inspired by Opetaia Foa’i (the lead singer)’s travels to Samoa, Tokelau and Tuvalu. In his words:

“It was a time of great happiness and celebration, but it was also tinged with sadness. Seeing for myself the effects of climate change brought home to me the reality that these islands, with their unique and individual cultures, will not endure if something isn’t done to reverse this trend in the very near future. It is real to me now, that we all need to do something, no matter how small, to help. Despite all this — to visit the place where I was born, and visit both my Mother and Father’s Islands, has been a source of great inspiration for me. I was amazed to see that the houses in my village were still the same — thatched roof, no walls, one room fits all. Happy childhood memories came flooding back. I experienced the people, the music, the dance, the awesome hospitality and I left there hoping that all this will always be there.”

The album inspires a pensive sort of happiness — the kind that you might feel after finally seeing some light, after having struggled with a difficult situation for a very long time. The lyrics of the title song, “Nukukeke,” tell of the experience of returning to a familiar place, finding that it has lost something of its magic, and determining that that magic must be recovered.

Te Vaka is enormously popular in Oceania. After being nominated for a Grammy for their involvement in the soundtrack of Moana, they have attained greater international prominence. This claim to fame strikes me as rather ironic, but it does reflect the fact that Te Vaka’s sound touches a popular nerve which can reach the entire world. Bright harmonies; a solid bassline; the use of both traditional Pacific Island instruments and the more established standards of contemporary globalized music: all of these features support an aesthetic that is resounding for us all.

The conversation we stewarded mirrored the currents reflected in the music we listened to. We discussed the controversial phrase “small island developing states” — four keywords which have become enshrined in international policy and form the basis for how many climate professionals deal with island-related issues. We considered how the pressures of colonialism and marginalization continue to define the geopolitical position of many of the world’s islands (including Puerto Rico). We discussed the environmental crisis exacerbated by Hurricane María, and how politics can be an unapologetic agent of social and ecological collapse.

When the discussion turned directly to music, we reflected upon the role of music in society, and its potential to be a conduit for social and environmental consciousness. Perhaps more poignantly though, we spoke about the music of islands themselves — the vibrant soundscapes of the rainforest, the chirps of birds and of coquís… and the lapping of the waves, which we agreed meant more to us than contemporary geopolitics can express. We said, too, that these sounds hold a special place in the hearts of “island people” — no matter which ocean you happen to live in. We affirmed that we are linked by ocean, and by a particular set of nature sounds which defines us as deeply as any other marker of identity or belonging. We proposed to each other that this music could serve as a powerful connector across the divides that we live with — divides which have become real simply because we have not considered that they could be otherwise.

Soundscapes After Hours will continue over the coming month as a discussion circle meets workshop. Participants who are interested in a specific aspect of the meeting point(s) between music, environmentalism and islands will have an opportunity to develop their work with the support of their peers. Though it is not reflected on Google, there is perhaps a cultural discourse that is emerging among certain activists, intellectuals and musicians on the world’s islands. In this discourse, the relationship between music and environmentalism and islands is not in any way an abstraction. Rather, it is an important thread in the fabric of everyday life.

Google will simply have to catch up.

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Priya Parrotta

Priya Parrotta

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Author, climate activist, singer & Founder/Director of Music & the Earth International (musicandtheearth.org)