Composer Ludwig Göransson on why ‘Black Panther’ at the Bowl will be so special
It’s been only three years since the release of “Black Panther,” but the world is almost unrecognizably different for some of its creators, not to mention its fans. Most tragically, lead actor Chadwick Boseman died last August when he was just 43.
Composer Ludwig Göransson, who won an Academy Award for his original score, has had a much happier world shift: He married and became a father, twice, since summer 2018. Both of his sons are sleeping through the night, he said with some relief.
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Göransson, 37, will probably need a sitter this weekend when his “Black Panther” score is performed at the Hollywood Bowl live to picture. Ryan Coogler’s Marvel film is the latest to receive the live score treatment, and it presents a challenge for the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Göransson’s score was a unique marriage of symphonic superhero music, electronic hip-hop and traditional African instruments performed by Senegalese players — much of the latter gathered in the field on a lengthy research trip the composer took before the film was shot.
Fortunately, the L.A. Phil is bringing Senegal to Hollywood. Baaba Maal, whose soaring voice welcomes the audience to Wakanda in the film (singing in Xhosa about the death of an elephant), will play his part at the Bowl. One of the score’s trademark sounds is the African talking drum, which imitates speech. In “Black Panther” it often “says” T’challa’s name, and Massamba Diop will be reprising his performance from the soundtrack. Magatte Sow, who played other Senegalese percussion on the score — namely sabar and djembe — also will be on hand with a six-piece sabar ensemble.
“Hearing those instruments live, and also seeing how they’re performed, is something you don’t experience every day,” Göransson said. “And especially bringing this group of musicians and combining it with western classical orchestra, and seeing them play together, is going to be just so fascinating and new. It’s such a great blend, and I’m just so stoked to see them doing that.”
The only star missing is Amadou Ba, whose distinct performance on the fula flute gave musical voice to the tragic Killmonger’s pain and righteous rage. Those solos will be played by an Angeleno, Steve Kujala, who specializes in non-western flutes.
With his background in hip-hop producing and classical studies, Göransson was well suited to tackle “Black Panther” — although some heads turned at the sight of this white Swedish guy with long brown hair treading into such a proudly Black story. He and Coogler met as students at USC and became regular collaborators; Göransson was along for Coogler’s cinematic rise from the Sundance darling “Fruitvale Station” through the resurrection of the “Rocky” franchise with “Creed.”
All of these are Black-centered narratives, but Coogler wanted nobody else to help musically tell them. When the director asked him to score “Black Panther,” Göransson said he knew he had to go to Africa if he was going to do the story justice.
“Even though I might not have the knowledge yet of someone that’s lived in Africa and played African music their whole life, I think I can still manage to study it and try to learn as much as possible,” Göransson said in 2018. “And since I’ve been working with Ryan for a long time, and he trusts me and we have a really great collaboration between the two of us, he asked me if I was up for the task, and I said, ‘Hell, yeah. I’ll try to do my best.’”
The film was a blockbuster and critical success, no small thanks to the rousing and memorably melodic engine of its score. Where other film composers have sometimes paid shallow attention to the culture they’re scoring, Göranssson’s prominent featuring of Senegalese virtuosos became part of the film’s authentic Wakandan fabric. The Motion Picture Academy and the Recording Academy agreed, awarding the score their top prizes.
There are inherent challenges for the musicians and conductor Thomas Wilkins of performing this music live: blending African instrumentalists with a symphony orchestra as well as synching up beats, all while walking the tightrope of tracking with the film. But Göransson said he always makes sure his scores are playable.
When in London recording the score at Abbey Road, he said, “for the orchestra, something that was challenging was some of the African rhythms. Because it’s not quantized the same way that we use here in western classical music. But we notated it in a way where it was pretty playable. And the L.A. Phil, they’re incredible players. We have one of the best orchestras in the world playing this music.”
“Black Panther” became a huge part of Göransson’s life. Maal and Diop performed at his wedding, to violinist Serena McKinney, in 2018. The composer is working on the sequel, “Wakanda Forever,” currently shooting in Atlanta.
“Ryan sends me the script very early, before he starts shooting,” Göransson said. “So I’ve read it. I’m collecting ideas. And I’ve been writing. I have no idea, really, what the score is going to be like, but I’m starting to come up with different concepts in my mind.”
‘Black Panther in Concert,’ the Troubies’ ‘Lizastrata,’ Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a miniature L.A. County Fair and other things to do.
Digging back into the score that started it all is helping him get back into a Wakandan headspace, although he’s glad he has no official duties this weekend and can just sit in the audience and enjoy the show.
“That movie had such a big impact in so many ways, for so many people,” he said. “And just seeing Chadwick on screen, it’s going to be extremely emotional for everyone there, and everyone’s going to feel that same thing. The energy is going to be something special.”
'Black Panther in Concert'
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Friday , 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
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