It took the combined talents of four Grammy winners, a symphony orchestra and a chorus of African-American opera singers to make ‘The Woman King’ resonate with the sounds of 19th-century West Africa.
“This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies,” said composer Terence Blanchard of director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s project, for which he wrote a powerful score — unlike anything seen in an African film of the era. heard since Quincy Jones’ “Roots” 45 years ago.
“All your experiences lead you to this moment, to work on something like this,” says the two-time Oscar nominee and five-time Grammy winner. “As soon as I saw it, I was shocked. I saw these characters as the DNA of all the strong African-American women I experienced growing up.”
“The Woman King” is set in 1823 Dahomey, a West African kingdom now known as the nation of Benin. Viola Davis plays the leader of an all-female army of warriors known as the Agojie.
Director Prince-Bythewood says: Variety: “Terence and I immediately agreed what we wanted to do with this score. We wanted a classical orchestral grandeur steeped in West African culture, instrumentation with voices to convey the sense of the ancestors.”
Blanchard enlisted the nine-part Vox Noire ensemble he had previously used in his acclaimed opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” during last year’s Metropolitan Opera performances; and recorded for five days with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow. Perhaps most importantly, he enlisted legendary jazz singer and five-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves as his soloist.
“Dianne had to be that emotional representation of these women,” explains Blanchard. “I knew Dianne had an improv character that suited this film perfectly. She is like family to me. We told her the story, and she came up with these ideas on the spot looking at the screen.”
All of Blanchard’s choral material is wordless, although Reeves’ vocalizations occasionally simulate language. “When Dianne starts to improvise, she uses a lot of guttural sounds and sounds that sound like she’s singing words,” Blanchard says.
Reeves and Vox Noire flew to Scotland to perform with the 78-piece orchestra. Additional shooting days were needed (one in New York with Vox Noire, another in Colorado with Reeves) as post-production got underway to make the Toronto Film Festival premiere. The choir was led by the Ghanaian-American mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng.
But chants and dancing are an integral part of the Agojie experience, so Prince-Bythewood brought in another Grammy winner, South African-born Lebo M, whose vocals appear in Disney’s “The Lion King” (both animated and live performances). action versions) now iconic.
“These songs had to feel of this kingdom and this time, and of the culture,” says the director. “That started with the instrumentation and rhythms he created, and the lyrics I gave him in Fongbe’s native language. He sent his team to teach our actors how to sing these complex melodies as a unit. It was a beautiful environment to see how the actors were captivated by the music he was making.”
Three Lebo M songs (titled “Tribute to the King”, “Blood of Our Sisters” and “Agojie It’s War”) are performed in the film and preserved on the film’s soundtrack, which was released Friday on Milan Records.
All dialogues in the film are accented in English. But, adds Prince-Bythewood: “I still wanted to make sure I was honoring the beautiful language of the kingdom, so I decided the chants and songs would be in Fongbe. We had two women from Benin who speak the language. spoke to help us with both the words and the pronunciation. I love the sound.”
Blanchard did not have to research West African music for his score. Lionel Loueke, former student and later guitarist in one of his bands, is from Benin. “Through him I already knew something of that music rhythmically and harmonically.” The composer recalled that much of the music from that region is “very melodic, almost like American spirituals in a way, but with a different kind of harmonic progression.”
The percussion – almost all played by three drummers and percussionists in Glasgow – is particularly impressive, as it drives the many action scenes in the film. Blanchard himself plays the kalimba, an African musical instrument with a wooden soundboard and metal keys.
“A great score is both invisible and magnified,” says Prince-Bythewood. “It has to be part of the fabric of the film. Still, a great score is wholly memorable. Terence’s score enhances every theme, every emotion, every struggle, every heartbreak, every triumph, but never overwhelms. It makes you feel. It is truly beautiful and I am grateful to have been able to sit in the front row at its inspired birth.”
The film closes with an original song, “Keep Rising”, by Jessy Wilson, Jeremy Lutito and five-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo, who is also from Benin.