• Ben Erickson

Black Panther

Black Panther is the most recent superhero release of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the final episode leading in to the fabled Avengers: Infinity War. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, with a score written by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson. Göransson began working with film music in 2008 and has since composed for several major Hollywood blockbusters, choosing to explore the musical culture of Africa for Black Panther. Rather than feign some light research into the musical roots of the country and emerge with a close imitation of the sound the composer traveled to Senegal and South Africa for two weeks, recording with local musicians as he explored African instruments and styles. Said Göransson, "I came back with a totally different idea of music, a different knowledge. The music that I discovered was so unique and special. [The challenge was] how do I use that as the foundation of the entire score, but with an orchestra and modern production techniques - infuse it in a way that it doesn't lose its African authenticity?" Before debating whether or not Göransson was successful here we can first identify the primary elements used in the construction of the score. Of the African styles used the West-African drumming techniques are by-and-large the most prominent, led by six talking drums. The composer wanted the talking drum to speak for T'Challa as it is the only drum capable of really breathing, built with cords that can be pulled or loosened by the performer to change pitch and tone. The Sabar is also given quite a bit of prominence, a Senegalese drum played with a hand and a stick, not unlike the conga drum or a djembe in timbre. These instruments are usually joined by shakers to create a lively, transparent, and intricate throng of rhythmic variations, and it is clear that the musicians used abroad know every limit to their instrument as they gave a fiery performance in the recording studio. Other African instruments used include the Tambin, a flute made of conical vine with three finger-holes, considered to be the national instrument of Fula. This woodwind served as the reflective aspect to the score, associated strongly with Killmonger and the mistakes made by the leaders of Wakanda. The Kora, an African lute-bridge-harp, and the Vuvuzela, an African horn, were also used to create a more varied and wholesome sound, filling in missing registers and even taking the focus from time to time with isolated modal passages. It is possible that wooden xylophones or the mbira were used as there are several textures appearing within the score that align closely with these instruments, but this has yet to be confirmed. The use of chanting and background vocals also feature heavily and provide an inimitable quality that speaks to the African heritage of the music. A forty-voice choir was used for the London recordings, singing in Xhosa, a South African language. Besides infusing African styles with a 120 piece orchestra, Göransson had to incorporate electronic effects into the score to better associate the music with the album of singles recorded for the film, courtesy of Kendrick Lamar. As a result the score uses an assortment of reverb and echo effects as well as electric bass, a drum machine, and some seriously manipulated vocals. Göransson's background as a singer/song-writer before composing for film helped with these additions and made the transitions in the score far less jarring than they otherwise might have been, particularly when the drum machine imitated the African rhythms set forth by the talking drums. The electronic effects, as well as integrating music of the singles album, signify the rise of Killmonger and his desire to join the technologies of Wakanda with the modern world. The theme for Black Panther is first heard in the "Royal Talon Fighter" cue, with a series of triplet rhythms and stacking harmonies in the horns. It appears at moments when Wakanda or T'Challa himself is at the height of power and honour, such as ritualistic ceremonies or in the triumph of battle, and is accompanied by a chorus chanting T'Challa's name ("Wakanda", "Waterfall Fight", "Phambili", "Busan Car Chase", and "United Nations / End Titles"). Following this we enter "Wakanda" to the sound of a solo vocalist. The proud chant rings across plains and over the buildings of Wakanda, sung in Fulu and recorded by Senegalese artist Baaba Maal, returning toward the end of "A Kings Sunset" to indicate the passing of a once great line and the resumed stability of Wakanda. The cue "Warrior Falls" is heard as we explore Wakanda for the first time, showcasing two uplifting chants early on that capture the colour and spirit of the country with the use of gospel-like background vocals. Once reaching the falls themselves we enter back into the African drums, daring another of the tribes to challenge the rule of king T'Challa.

"The Jabari" Gorilla tribe, heard immediately after, are represented by bass drums and grunting male voices. Their music is very primal and appears a few times throughout the film in concert with the Vuvuzela, such as when T'Challa's family seek refuge with the Gorilla tribe ("Entering Jabariland") and the final fight on the plains of Wakanda ("The Jabari Pt II"). The "Ancestral Plane" cue briefly features the Kora before moving into the pensive, grieving theme associated with the loss of T'Challa's father, King T'Chaka, and the dissension between T'Chaka and N'Jobu. This theme, used for the more emotionally powerful moments in the film, communicates the agony experienced by ostensibly reflective characters. Entertainingly, it struck a similar tone to "This Land" from Hans Zimmer's score for The Lion King. The austere and exposed strings in a couple of instances, such as when T'Challa first speaks with his father, or at the passing of Killmonger, clashes - intentionally - with the still tones of the film to create a sense of misunderstanding, functioning as a beautiful annex of the score. Other more circumspect uses of the theme include the cues "Royal Talon Fighter", "Killmonger", "Busan Car Chase", "Outsider", "Is This Wakanda?", "Killmonger's Challenge", "Killmonger's Dream", "Burn It All", "The Great Mound Battle", and "A New Day". "Killmonger", as noted above, is often represented by the Tambin and electronic effects, but he is also given his own distinct motifs to supplement these voices. The first is an eight-note pattern moving by semitones and whole tones to reinforce the inevitable nature of his character, and the second is a short series of four fomenting, threatening notes. It has already been pointed out by some that this is James Horner's danger motif, heard aplenty throughout the late composer's works (Willow, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Troy, Avatar, etc.) and borrowed from the onset of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1. It would be a surprise to hear this was done by mere coincidence. The more likely alternative is Göransson, having studied film music for at least ten years now, wanted to offer a small tribute to Horner's legacy in the best way he knew how. Other features of interest include the yelping vocals giving chase to Klaue in "Casino Brawl" and heard during the final battle ("The Great Mound Battle"), using a performance technique in which the Tambin flautist screams into their mouthpiece, some lovely strings with Kora and choral textures appearing when CIA agent Everett Ross awakens in Wakanda ("Is This Wakanda?"), and the melody introduced late in the film, first heard at the final battle ("Glory to Bast"). The melody represents the dawn of a new Wakanda; one that is willing to share its resources responsibly with the rest of the world. The "United Nations / End Titles" cue presents a small suite of most of the score's major motifs and melodies, and offers some well developed music for the movie-goer patiently waiting to see the obligatory post-credits scene. Appropriately enough Wakanda has adopted a wide variety of African music traditions and become an occult musical center for Africa. It is interesting that what Western scholars have always maintained to be musical primitivism is, in the context of Black Panther, used to represent the most advanced society on the planet. Regardless, to have two consecutive MCU films take such wildly different and inventive directions with the score has been a very fortunate venture on part of the composers. Just as Mark Mothersbaugh embraced a multitude of musical styles for Thor: Ragnarok, Göransson brought to Black Panther an unforeseen result. And as the composer himself pointed out, it was once again a matter of reconciling the varying styles so as to preserve the cinematic orchestral sound associated with the MCU films. Whether this integration was successful is still something I have been reticent to come to a decision on. Many are praising the final product, but I worry the composer was trying to accomplish too much, and that the score did not make for as seamless a mix as its predecessor. Many of the African instruments became lost in the orchestral textures and the electronic components still came off as very abrupt, despite being treated by an expert. However, for the sheer resourcefulness and integrity of the composer to explore African music so willingly the score and its composer deserve generous accolades.