On Sunday night, Ludwig Göransson won three Grammys. The trio of awards came in recognition of his Black Panther score, and his collaboration with Childish Gambino on “This Is America,” a song (and record) that set the world on fire. Along with Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Ariana Grande and others, Gambino (né Donald Glover) was not in attendance that night, reportedly due to friction with The Recording Academy. Standing in for the esteemed multi-hyphenate, the composer and record producer could only pay tribute to Glover and director Ryan Coogler, two of his closest collaborators, who created two of the year’s most groundbreaking works of art.
“I feel like I’m in a dream right now. It’s just so insane,” Göransson told Deadline yesterday. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been working with Donald Glover and Ryan Coogler, and we’ve put down so much time, really trying to make the best that we can, whether it’s a movie, a film score, or a song.”
Sunday night’s were far from the only kudos Göransson has received this season. It was Black Panther, Coogler’s Marvel pic about an African king to be, that brought him his first nods from both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Setting out on the pic, the composer had a shorthand in place with Coogler; meeting Göransson as a fellow student at USC, the director was one of his first friends in America after moving from his native Sweden to pursue his dream. In the case of Black Panther, the composer’s third film with Coogler, the director “had just written the first draft of the script, and he sent it to me,” Göransson says. “I read it, and I called him right back and said, ‘The only way for me to score this movie would be for me to go to Africa, and immerse myself in the culture, and study and learn the music.'”
These days, a number of prominent directors are inviting their composer into their process from the start—think Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz (First Man), or Adam McKay and Nicholas Britell (Vice). For Göransson, the benefits of working this way are clear, and reflecting on his own collaboration, he can’t help but admire Coogler, “the guy that gives everything.” “During post-production, he was working at the Disney lot from nine to midnight every day,” Göransson shares. “Then he came to my studio and sat with me from one to four in the morning, working on the score. That says a lot.”
Always in sync, Coogler went off on his own journeys through Africa as Göransson did the same, embarking on a twisting and turning journey through Senegal that would change his life. For the composer, on this trip, what was mystery became magic.
What happened on your trip to Africa? Where did you go, who did you meet, and what did you learn?
I was drawn to West Africa. I did listen to a bunch of different styles of African music, and there was something about the percussion and the drums of West Africa, and the energy, that felt so cinematic to me. I really thought that would be a cool sound to have in the movie. So, I bought a ticket to Senegal and a week before my flight, I got a number [for] Baaba Maal, one of Africa’s biggest artists. So, I called him the week before, and I didn’t know what I was going to say. But I asked him if he had time to record, or just meet up, and he’s like, “Okay, I’m going on tour in a week. You should just come follow me around.”
He invited me and my wife to come on this African tour, and we flew straight over. We got picked up at the airport by his assistant, and we had really no idea what to expect. We drove two hours outside Dakar to sleep for the night, and then we got picked up again the day after. We started this really long road trip with Baaba Maal’s assistant and a retired police chief, a 14-hour road trip up to northern Senegal.
We got to this little city at 10 PM and we were like, “Aren’t we going to a festival?” And Baaba Maal’s assistant told us, “We’re very close, we’re almost there.” We continued driving for another two hours in the middle of the night. It’s like 1 AM, we look around, and it’s literally pitch black; we’re not even on a road. My wife turned to me and she’s like, “Did you really talk to Baaba Maal?” I was like, “Yeah, I did! We talked on the phone a week ago.”
Then finally at two in the morning, we come to this tiny house, and Baaba Maal’s assistant tells us, “You can go in there and meet Baaba Maal.” We walk in and we see Baaba Maal sitting in the corner, in a tiny, little room, surrounded by these women and men from the village, dressed up in really beautiful traditional clothing, singing to him, praising him, giving him food, and telling him about what’s going on in their village. It was an extremely beautiful ceremony.
Baaba Maal invites us to sit down and eat food with him. We all eat from the same plate; it’s like goat and rice. We all eat with our hands, and it’s the best food I’ve ever had. After 48 hours of traveling from LA, we were in a kind of dream state. We’re exhausted, it’s the middle of the night, and it’s like a magical energy in the air.
Baaba Maal says, “Now we’re going to go to the concert.” We go back in the car and drive five minutes into the village, and we see the whole village is there, waiting for the concert. People [had been] traveling for days on donkey carts from surrounding villages to be at this concert. We pull up in this backstage area. It’s like three in the morning. Baaba Maal finally comes out and starts singing solo with a piano; just one note on the piano, and he starts singing. The energy in the whole village is crazy. It’s so super quiet, and Baaba Maal steps out, and it’s kind of like a religious experience, like a sermon.
I was like, “I can definitely tell I’m at the right place at the right time right now. If I can capture this moment and this feeling that Baaba Maal is contributing to right now for the movie, I’d be so happy.” He came out and was singing about what was going on in the world. He was singing about female mutilation, about prearranged child marriage. He was just telling people that it’s time to change. He’s such a special person.
Later, on my last day in Senegal, I was able to actually record him singing for the intro of Black Panther. I put Baaba Maal on FaceTime with Ryan, and Ryan told Baaba Maal about the story of the movie. Five minutes later, we went into the studio. I went in and played the piano cord, and Baaba Maal started singing this beautiful melody. The lyrics are in Fulani because Baaba Maal is from the Fula tribe. He was singing about an elephant that had died, an elephant being like a synonym for a king, and “It’s time for someone to take over. But you shouldn’t do it too fast.” That became the opening for flying into Wakanda.
What musical colors proved essential in crafting your Black Panther score?
It was always important that the soul of the music was based on traditional African music and traditional African instruments. For me and Ryan, that was always the most important part. Another interesting flavor that’s a big part of the score is the talking drum, which is a very old instrument, because you can play on this and basically say words on this drum. I met this incredible talking drum player, Massamba Diop, and he told me about the instrument. I asked him, “How would you say T’Challa’s name on the drum?” He played me a rhythm that resonated, and basically said T’Challa’s name on the drum, [so that] every time you see T’Challa in the movie, you hear the talking drum coming by, saying his name.
Could you further break down the range of instruments you chose for your score?
A big part of [it] was the Sakara drums, the talking drums, the Kora, which is the African harp. It kind of sounds like a harp, but it’s made out of fishing lines. Killmonger’s scene is played on the Fula flute, which is a very special flute. The instrumentalist that played his theme came into the studio, and when I heard him play this flute, it was just resonating with me. It sounded like the way that I was thinking about Killmonger; it’s a very impulsive sound. I told the flute player about Killmonger’s character, and he went back into the studio again and started playing. He started screaming Killmonger’s name in the flute; I’d never heard that sound before, and as soon as I heard it, I recorded it on my phone and sent a voicemail to Ryan Coogler. As soon as Ryan heard it, he sent it to Michael B. Jordan. So, as he was preparing for the role, he had that sound already in his head.
The Black Panther score is a combination of disparate elements. How did you strike a balance between them?
That was the biggest challenge, the three elements—the traditional African music, the classic orchestra sound that we needed to make a big superhero film, and modern hip-hop production for Killmonger’s character. The difficult part was how to blend these three elements with each other; especially, how to blend the orchestra sound into African music, and still have it sound African. I had to take a couple months and experiment, and reconfigure the way that I normally write for an orchestra. Normally when you write for an orchestra, you think about melody and harmony and countermelody. But now, with African music, it’s more about rhythm and counter-rhythm, and the complexity of all these incredible rhythms. I used the orchestra more in terms of arranging the different sections of the orchestra as different rhythms and different drums. I had the strings play one rhythm; then the woodwinds play a counter-rhythm to that. So, it was definitely a new way to write.
Black Panther transcended the supposed limitations of the superhero genre, earning seven Oscar nominations. At the same time, it is a Marvel blockbuster. What challenges and opportunities have you found, working on a project with this kind of scope?
When I saw the movie for the first time, the four-hour cut, I think I was crying. I called my wife and told her, “Babe, this is the Star Wars of our generation.” There was no music in it at the time, so at the same time, I felt an urge and a pressure like, “Ryan really did something special here. This is one of the most unique and important films of all time.” Whatever I was doing needed to match his vision.
What have you taken away from your experience with this film? How did it enrich your life?
I’m so grateful to be able to work on something like this—not just that it’s a huge movie and it’s played the whole world. But just for me, the learning experience, learning so much about music and culture, and meeting all these incredible musicians in Africa, and being able to work together. Later on, when the movie came out and my collaborators in Africa saw the movie—I think there’s one or two movie theaters in Dakar—they called me afterwards. The talking drum player, Massamba, called me right after, and told me he was so proud to hear his music and his instruments played on the big screen, for the whole world to hear. I think that was probably one of the moments I was most grateful for.