Composers embrace varied elements of continent’s sound

African diaspora

Long conspicuously absent from Hollywood’s dehydrating well of original plotlines, African narratives emerged in a big way in 2006 with films set and shot all over the continent, most notably “Blood Diamond,” “The Last King of Scotland” and “Catch a Fire.”

And just as filmmakers delved past the jungle-safari cliches of old, so too did their composers reveal an untapped font of inspiration.

“The Last King of Scotland” composer Alex Heffes spent three weeks in Uganda with director Kevin Macdonald before shooting, and had no difficulty scouting the local scene.

“Everyone in Uganda seems to be a musician of some kind,” he says, “the local palette just expanded our minds.”

In addition to the ubiquity of music in the country, Heffes also found diversity.

“We discovered that Uganda in the ’70s was really sort of a funky place,” he adds, “and it still is now. I wanted people to sit up and realize that East Africa isn’t all mud huts and tribal music; they have really groovy stuff going on.”

Heffes brought an arsenal of Ugandan instruments and a few Ugandans themselves back to London, where he incorporated them into a 75-piece orchestra. East African drums — live and looped — figure prominently into the slow-building score, as does the amadinda (a type of huge, two-person xylophone). The eerily seductive leitmotif for former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, portrayed by Forest Whitaker, is played on an East African harp.

The composer also produced and recorded the “Scotland” soundtrack, which boasts some of the only recordings of popular Ugandan musicians available in the West, including real-life Amin favorite, the Afrigo Band.

Working double-duty enabled Heffes to shape the entire musical scope of the film, alternating the infectious Afro-soul of the soundtrack with the often disturbing, discordant cues of the score.

Heffes’ desire to avoid antiquated notions of “African-ness” is shared by Philip Miller, who scored “Catch a Fire.”

“There’s constantly this thing with geography and ‘what sounds African?’ ” says Miller, who was born in the U.K. but considers South Africa his home. “(Director) Phillip Noyce and I agreed very quickly to get away from this idea that the drum is the universal sound of Africa.

“For South African music, the primary instrument is the human voice,” he continues. “And it’s four-part harmony, which is a very different type of traditional singing, a very particular sound.”

Appropriately, Miller’s “Catch a Fire” draws heavily from this sound. He recorded the entire score in South Africa, peppering his string-heavy chamber cues with an eight-person regional choir.

Other instruments such as the African harp and pennywhistle were liberally employed, although the structure and themes are more typically Western than those of “The Last King of Scotland.”

“Phillip wanted something that had the traditional Hollywood strings and sounds and feel,” Miller explains. “So I primarily worked within the framework of a strong classical score, and from there brought in the African instruments and vocals. I wanted to give that flavor of where the film is coming from, without it just becoming an ethnographic piece.”

That dilemma was no worry for James Newton Howard.

The uber-maestro adopted a polyglot approach for his “Blood Diamond” score, using piano, marimba, kalimba, oud, electric bass, a Senegalese percussion troupe, an African children’s choir, an Indian violist and, for good measure, a 90-piece orchestra. Yet the result is hardly as overwhelming — or schizophrenic — as its constitution might suggest.

“I didn’t want to do a purely African score,” says Howard, “nor did I want to immerse myself in the orchestral bombast typical of an action movie. We wanted it to be on the line of an ambient score, with orchestral sweetening. So we tried to use all these extra elements in nontraditional ways.”

Indeed, the score for the Sierra Leone-set pic (filmed in Mozambique and South Africa) is more thematic than regional, providing counterpoints to the loud set pieces and visceral images onscreen.

“It serves the film geographically,” Howard says, “even though there’s no specificity to the geography. We gave ourselves license to use whatever worked. I was trying to stay away from the purely diatonic African mode, because it’s just a little too benign for this type of film.”

What the three disparate scores demonstrate equally is the impossibility of pigeonholing African music, categorizable only by its wild diversity, unpredictability and, as “Scotland’s” Heffes found, inventiveness.

“There was one point where we needed a really horrific sound, and none of the African percussions were nasty enough,” Heffes says, recalling a cue for a brutal interrogation scene.

His solution? Take the brake drums off a rusted pickup truck, suspend them from a metal hook and pummel them with wrenches.

“In Uganda, they can make instruments out of almost anything,” he relates. “So I thought, ‘Well, let’s use a bit of an old pickup.’ I mean, why not?”

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