The below is an interview done by Film Music Magazine with Laurent Eyquem, a French music composer who scored and was in charge of the music for the movie Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson in the title role.
The Choir is featured in several of the songs. I’ve taken excerpts from the original interview below that is related to the Choir. You can read the entire interview at the Film Music Magazine website.
Seems like there was some interesting back story in getting the Choir involved with the film!
For a historical power couple played by singer-actress Jennifer Hudson and actor Terence Howard, Eyquem marks his scoring return to the South African conflict after “A Million Colours” with empathy that can soar as high as John Barry’s plane in “Out of Africa,” or reach the intimacy of piano and subtle strings. Eyquem’s western approach is stirringly integrated with the Soweto Gospel choir to give his approach the unbreakable, native spiritual power of the film’s heroine. But as opposed to romantic candy coating, Eyquem also hears a turn to anger that’s made Winnie Mandela into a far more polarizing figure than her husband.
Could you talk about the mix of traditional African music with a western approach? And did any past scores in the genre influence you?
Well, I did not listen to any former scores in the genre, because I did not want to follow any path or to be influenced in any way. Europe tends to embrace different musical styles from around the world, and when I was young, I listened to a lot of South African music using instruments such as the penny whistle, to Zulu songs, the choirs, up to and including African “pop” music. I was a big fan of Johnny Clegg and Savuka. All of this helped me to write an orchestral score that would respect the South African music and its harmonies, while still making it quite universal. The Director Darrell Roodt really wanted to have a score that would be very respectful, in its construction and use of the instruments, to the South African culture, while still being international because the story of Winnie and Nelson Mandela is a part of world history. It is not only an African story, it is a story that has lessons for all of mankind.
Tell us about your main themes in “Winnie Mandela.”
In “Sunrise” (the opening of the film), the challenge was to bring the audience into Winnie’s character in 3 – 4 minutes, because we go from Winnie being born to a young lady leaving home by the time we reach the following cue, “A New Season”. So the opening theme needed to explain right away the essence of whom we are dealing with: Winnie is a strong combative woman who developed this character from her youngest age. Therefore, the choir, the brass and the drums take the audience into this strong, epic journey, while on screen we discover Winnie being a baby, then stick fighting with boys, and finally we discover the young fearless adolescent that she was.
Then we have the main themes: “Sound of Hope” and its variations in which we hear echoes of Winnie and Nelson’s life together: it starts with soft melodic lines, with French horn, or English horn and then, step by step, transitions to that strong powerful melody (heavy harmonies in the strings and brass, very powerful), that harkens back to the complicity and strength the couple drew upon in order to face their struggles together, until almost the end, because Nelson was “forced”, to separate from Winnie, in order to be able to become president of South Africa.
There are also some melancholic pieces, like the adagio “Lover in Prison” that comes back a second time in the film (not in the Soundtrack album) when Winnie is condemned. I chose an adagio and the beautiful voice of Ipeleng Moshe (one of the sopranos of the Soweto Gospel Choir), again, to distance the audience from the evident drama, and bring back a human perspective to the tragedy unfolding on the screen.
Finally, the piano solo piece “Passing of Time” is an important cue as well in the film. It is soft, melancholic, sad, while giving a sense of the time passing inevitably, taking us to another deep step each time, in Winnie’s life. In fact, this theme is attached to three crucial moments: the first time to follow the lonely journey of Winnie who could not see Nelson for a year (when he was sentenced), the second time, when Nelson reads Winnie’s letters from his prison, and finally, when the body of the little boy is found in a field, having been killed by Winnie’s supporters. It is a long journey, a long descent, and the piano, while pounding chords on the left hand, reminds us of the regrettable path that Winnie’s life has taken.
You make particularly haunting use of the piano, an instrument we usually don’t hear in westernized “African” scores, an approach usually taken when the characters are white, a la “Out of Africa.” What was the inspiration for using a classical approach like this?
Well, first off the piano is my constant companion when I compose. As well, I did not want to fall into the “African” stereotype on this score. I used many South-African elements such as the penny whistle, drums, marimba and of course the Soweto Gospel Choir, so we had all the right elements to keep us rooted in the cultural context. But the story of Winnie Mandela is also story about a man and a women, a love story, and the struggles of Winnie’s life, so for me the use of western instruments would help to keep us in the perspective that this story is not just a South African story, but our story, as an active observer of history unfolding. The entire world has been witness to South Africa’s story – and to the story of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. So, the piano and a more classical approach also help to maintain a sense of musical relevance to a broader audience.
What was it like working with the Soweto Gospel Choir, and how difficult was it to get them for the film?
The Soweto Gospel Choir was my ‘’dream’’ request. I have tremendous admiration for them and their work, and as well, they never been included in a full film score. They did the end-credit song of “Wall-E” with Peter Gabriel, but they’ve never been featured throughout an original score. So from day one, I wrote the score as if I would be able to get them, writing all my choir parts with the orchestral score. When Diane Warren emailed the production about how she loved the new arrangement and orchestration of the song, the South African producer Andre Pieterse called me the following morning (a Saturday at 7:00 am…I will remember all my life) to let me know that he was willing to secure the Soweto Gospel Choir for me to record on the score and end-credit song. It was not easy to finalize the deal, since Winnie has been opposed to the film and the Soweto Choir is very close to the Mandela family. But the beautiful and amazing surprise was, a week later, that both sides of the Mandela Family (both Nelson and Winnie) had consented, and granted me the privilege to come to record with the Soweto Gospel Choir in Johannesburg.
What was the experience of going to South Africa to record the Choir?
It was one of the most memorable recordings I have ever done. It was very different from what I expected, because once I got to Johannesburg, I discovered that they do not read music, so my score sheets were completely useless. We divided the choir to match all my divisi from my score and each group (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) learned their parts by heart, then right away, we were recording everybody together. Their experience, talent and commitment are truly amazing. Working and recording with them was a privilege and an honor.