U.K.-born Alex Heffes is neither African nor American, but he was chosen with good reason to score History’s revamped adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots”: The 44-year-old composer favors projects with a sonic mash-up of influences. And he has spent time researching and recording music in Africa, for both the 2013 biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and the 2006 Uganda-set drama “The Last King of Scotland.”
“So I guess that’s some qualification, if you can call it that,” the Oxford-educated Heffes demurs. “I’m interested in doing movies that have a mixture of genres — and ‘Roots’ is the ultimate one.”
Tracking the long lineage of Kunta Kinte, snatched from his Gambian village in the 1700s and sold into slavery, “Roots” needed a massive score. Heffes’ palette morphed from Kunta’s African homeland into bluegrass and other flavors as the slave’s descendants are forced to adapt to the American South.
The first episode’s score features a children’s choir from Gambia, accompanied by a kora — a 21-string African instrument — played by West African musician Sona Jobarteh, recorded remotely.
With the arrival later in the miniseries of Kunta’s grandson, Chicken George, a slave who arranges cockfights, Heffes stirs in a banjo. It’s all unified by a traditional orchestra, recorded in London (as were Lincoln Jean-Marie’s vocals, which propel the main theme), with various percussion performed by Heffes.
“It was a very international way of doing it, which you can do with the internet now,” the composer says. “It was really important for me to have those West African influences, but then not feel constrained by them. It’s the strange mixing, the melting pot of different cultures and ideas which, for me, makes it interesting. But there’s always an off-screen echo of the African roots.”
The series, which premieres May 30, posed a unique logistical challenge in that its four episodes (which air over four consecutive nights) were each helmed by a different director — Phillip Noyce, Thomas Carter, Mario Van Peebles, and Bruce Beresford — and Heffes collaborated with each as though he were scoring four separate movies. “Four movies in four months with four different directors,” he laughs. (In total, it’s nearly five hours of original score.)
“The film styles are very different,” Heffes notes. “Noyce’s episode is stark and minimal. Beresford’s episode is totally different. I’m the one who’s going through all of the nights, so I’m trying to keep an overview on it, have it all make sense across all four nights, but give each director something special as well.”
Heffes created continuity largely via his main theme, a noble lament that carries across each installment. But the orchestration morphs “from something much more African to being more western as it moves forward in time,” he says. “The theme you hear in episode one is still there in the very last scene of episode four, but it’s gone through a passage of time — which is hopefully what the story does as well.”
The composer’s upcoming film projects include the thriller “Bastille Day,” starring Idris Elba, and another visit to Africa for the Disney family feature “Queen of Katwe.”
Heffes saw the original “Roots,” the 1977 ABC miniseries starring LeVar Burton, many years ago, but avoided revisiting it before approaching this new incarnation. “I wanted to come at this fresh,” he says. “I was really encouraged to do my own thing, and make this a ‘Roots’ that would speak to people today.”