It took the combined talents of four Grammy winners, a symphony orchestra and a choir 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 films,” says composer Terence Blanchard of director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s project, for which he wrote a powerful score – the likes of which haven’t been heard in a period African film since Quincy Jones’ “Roots” 45 years ago.
“All of 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 floored. I looked at these characters as the founding 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 tells Variety: “Terence and I connected immediately on what we wanted to do with this score. We wanted a classic orchestral bigness steeped in West African culture, instrumentation with voices to bring the feel of the ancestors.”
Blanchard enlisted the nine-voice Vox Noire ensemble that he had previously employed 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 significantly, he called on legendary jazz singer and five-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves as his soloist.
“Dianne needed to be that emotional representation of these women,” Blanchard explains. “I knew Dianne had an improvisational nature that was perfectly suited to this film. She’s like family to me. We told her the story, and she was coming up with these ideas on the spot watching the screen.”
All of Blanchard’s choral material is wordless, although Reeves’ vocalizations occasionally simulate language. “When Dianne starts to improvise, she’s using a lot of guttural sounds and noises that sound like she’s singing words,” Blanchard says.
Reeves, and Vox Noire, flew to Scotland to perform with the 78-member orchestra. Additional recording days (one in New York with Vox Noire, another in Colorado with Reeves) were required as post-production ramped up to make the Toronto Film Festival premiere. Leading the choir was Ghanaian-American mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng.
But chants and dances are an integral part of the Agojie experience, so Prince-Bythewood brought in another Grammy winner, South African-born Lebo M, whose vocals in Disney’s “The Lion King” (both animated and live-action versions) are now iconic.
“These songs needed to feel of this kingdom and time, and of the culture,” says the director. “That started with the instrumentation and rhythms that he created, and the lyrics I gave him in the native language of Fongbe. He sent his team to teach our actors how to sing these complex melodies as a unit. It was a beautiful environment to see the actors enthralled in the music he created.”
Three Lebo M numbers (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, released Friday on Milan Records.
All the dialogue in the film is accented English. But, Prince-Bythewood adds, “I still wanted to make sure I honored the beautiful language of the kingdom, so I decided that the chants and songs would be in Fongbe. We had two women from Benin who spoke the language to help us with both the words and the pronunciation. I love the sound.”
Blanchard didn’t have to research West African music for his score. Lionel Loueke, a former student and later guitarist in one of his bands, hails from Benin. “Through him, I already knew about some of that music rhythmically and harmonically.” The composer recalled that much of the music of that region is “very melodic, almost like American spirituals in a way but with a different kind of harmonic progression.”
The percussion – nearly all played by three drummers and percussionists in Glasgow – is particularly impressive, as it drives the many action sequences 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,” Prince-Bythewood says. “It should feel a part of the fabric of the film. Yet a great score is wholly memorable. Terence’s score amplifies every theme, every emotion, every battle, every heartbreak, every triumph, but never overpowers. It makes you feel. It is truly magnificent and I am grateful to have had a front-row seat to its inspired birth.”
Capping the film is an original song, “Keep Rising,” by Jessy Wilson, Jeremy Lutito and five-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo who is also from Benin.