Ludwig Göransson won three Grammy Awards on Sunday night. He won the Grammy for co-writing This Is America with Donald Glover, and he won another Grammy for composing the Black Panther score. Göransson’s honors saw him becoming the first artist to win awards in two different genres. He’s still feeling overwhelmed and thrilled for the recognition as we hop on a quick call.
Göransson’s relationship with Black Panther director Ryan Coogler dates back to Fruitvale Station. As Coogler completed the first draft for Black Panther he sent it over to Göransson who immediately said yes to working on the project.
The composer took it upon himself to visit Africa and explore firsthand, in order to fully capture the cultural and musical landscape that would form the basis of the Oscar-nominated score. Göransson traveled around with a musician who introduced him not just to the music, but to instruments that became the soul of the score
Göransson talks about how his journey helped him marry African music into the Western grand orchestral sound of Black Panther.
What’s your first memory of a music score that stood out for you as a young boy in Sweden?
The first score that stood out for me was Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. That’s when I was crying and realized how the music and the picture worked so well together.
You’ve worked with Ryan Coogler before. So what did he tell you about Black Panther?
He actually sent me the first draft. I called him right after I read it and said, ‘Hey man! The only way I can score this movie is to go to Africa and immerse myself in the culture.’ That was really the first discussion.
I read that you took yourself there. What was that first visit was like, immersing yourself and seeing the music of Africa for yourself and learning about the sounds?
I spent the first few weeks just deciding where I wanted to go. I actually went to college in Stockholm for jazz music and part of my final year was taking a class in African music. They sent the class for a month to the Gambia where you got to study four different tribes. That’s actually where I got my first glimpse of how complex the West African rhythms were. That’s why I wanted to go back when I knew I was going to do Black Panther.
It also helps that I had a connection to a major Senegalese artist Baaba Maal. I called him and he offered me the opportunity to go on a tour with him. He didn’t say much about it, but we arrived there and there’s this guy and a driver waiting for us. He had invited me and my girlfriend so we stayed the night after driving for hours and in the morning we went off on another road trip that was something like thirteen hours of driving.
We didn’t know what to expect. It was a long flight and a long drive. We arrived at the festival and it was 2 in the morning. The whole village was there waiting for him to perform and when he came out on stage and just started singing and when I saw that I knew we were in the right place.
I met so many incredible musicians around Baaba Maal and they all played on it. I met Massamba Diop who’s a talking drum player and the talking drum is what became the main sound of the score.
On that note, let’s talk about T’Challa and creating his sound.
With him, I was always intrigued by the talking drum because it’s something you don’t hear in Western music or pop music. It’s such an interesting device, it’s almost like a human voice because you can talk with it. You play on it and you can send messages to each other. I always thought it was so interesting how you can use it as lyrics.
I asked how you’d say T’Challa’s name on the drum and he played a rhythm and that’s T’Challa’s name. He’s always accompanied by the talking in that rhythm.
That was the most important part, was to have the soul of the score based in African music. I used classical music with the big sweeping sound of the orchestra that I needed to add to the cinematic superhero scope of the movie and the big fights and those scenes. We wanted it to sound massive.
Then there was the hip-hop element of the score that accompanies Erik Killmonger and his journey where he’s from.
Was it difficult to balance the sound of the Western score with the African music?
The most challenging part was to fit the traditional orchestra into something that sounds African. That was difficult to figure out because normally when I write for orchestras I write for melodies and counter-melodies. African music is based on counter rhythms and rhythms so I had to reconfigure everything I knew. I had to tackle it in a percussive way.
The music is a modern rendition of African music and so the rhythms really work well together.
You talked about Erik Killmonger’s theme. What was that sound?
It came out of me meeting this incredible flute player Amadou who plays the fula flute. I met him and it was such an incredible sound and I’d never heard it before. It sounded mysterious, aggresive, and impulsive. It really resonated with me. I took him aside and I recorded him. He’d scream Killmonger into the flute and I was hynotized when I heard it.
I also sent it to Michael B. Jordon when he was preparing for the role and that’s what I did.