How ‘The Woman King’ Honors the Kingdom of Dahomey Through Songs and Chants

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 South West Africa. Nineteenth century.

“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies,” says composer Terence Blanchard of director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s project, for which he wrote a powerful score – the likes of which have never been heard of in a African vintage film. since Quincy Jones’ “Roots” 45 years ago.

“All of your experiences led you to this moment, working 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 considered these characters 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 Agojie.

Director Prince-Bythewood tells Variety“Terence and I immediately discussed what we wanted to do with this score. We wanted classical orchestral grandeur rooted in West African culture, instrumentation with vocals to bring the feel of the ancestors.

Blanchard enlisted the nine-part Vox Noire ensemble 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 importantly, he brought in legendary jazz singer and five-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves as a soloist.

“Dianne had to be this emotional representation of these women,” says Blanchard. “I knew Dianne had an improvisational nature that was perfect for this movie. She’s like family to me. We told her the story, and she came up with those ideas on the spot watching the screen.

All of Blanchard’s choral material is wordless, although Reeves’ vocalizations sometimes simulate language. “When Dianne starts improvising, she uses a lot of guttural sounds and noises that sound like she’s singing words,” says Blanchard.

Reeves and Vox Noire flew to Scotland to perform with the 78-member orchestra. Additional days of recording (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. Ghanaian-American mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng conducted the choir.

But singing and dancing is an integral part of the Agojie experience, so Prince-Bythewood brought in fellow Grammy winner, South African-born Lebo M, whose voice in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ (animated and live-action versions) is now iconic.

“These songs had to feel of this realm and this time, and the culture,” says the director. “It started with the instrumentation and the beats he created, and the lyrics I gave him in Fongbe’s native language. He sent his team to teach our actors to sing these complex melodies as a unit. It was a beautiful environment to see the actors captivated by the music he created.

Three numbers by Lebo M (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 dialogue in the film is accented in English. But, adds Prince-Bythewood, “I always 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 for us. help 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 then guitarist in one of his bands, is from Benin. “Thanks to him, I already knew some of this music rhythmically and harmonically.” The composer recalled that much of the music from this 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 enlivens the film’s many action sequences. Blanchard himself plays the kalimba, an African musical instrument with a wooden soundboard and metal keys.

“A good score is both invisible and magnified,” says Prince-Bythewood. “It should be part of the fabric of the film. Still, a great score is quite memorable. Terence’s score amplifies every theme, every emotion, every battle, every heartache, every triumph, but never dominates. It makes you feel. It’s truly beautiful and I’m grateful to have had a front row seat to its inspired birth.

The film is crowned by an original song, “Keep Rising”, by Jessy Wilson, Jeremy Lutito and five-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo, also from Benin.


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Grace D. Erickson