SKIN: The music

Director Anthony Fabian and I have collaborated on a range of projects over the past ten years, from short films to documentaries. When he invited me to write the score of SKIN, we talked about creating a soundworld that would reflect the nature and emotion of the story and give a clear sense of time and place. Using Western and African instruments (and devising a musical language that embraced both traditions) allowed me to explore a variety of styles and come up with a unique, ‘world music’ hybrid.

It is a luxury to work with a director who creates so many opportunities for music to be featured and for the key themes to evolve through the movie. These themes or motifs - usually relating to certain characters or inter-relationships, such as the Sannie/Sandra theme - reappear in various arrangements and are orchestrated in a variety of ways - sometimes with strings (cello and violin) other times with clarinet or piano - alongside a range of African instruments, such as the birambau (a single-string, percussive instrument), kalimba (thumb piano) and talking drum.

When it came to recording some of the instruments, I thought it would be interesting to challenge some of the stereotypical associations people have about musicians and skin colour. So, for example, we used a black string section (Buskaid - a string orchestra based in Soweto, consisting of mainly young student musicians) and white percussionists (experienced players based in LA - Richard Nash and Steve Barnes). I met Sabina Sandoval, from Colombia, at Motherland, the African music store in Culver City, Los Angeles. We hired one of every African instrument in the music shop; Sabina turned up at my studio in a VW camper van packed full of drums and we were off!

One of my favourite sessions involved recording the ‘talking drums”. These drums have to be squeezed under your arm so that the skin can be tightened or relaxed, which alters its pitch - and were used in the scene where Sandra sneaks out of the window to join Petrus in his township for the first time. We all had a go and soon realised it was very hard work on the squeezing arm! So we divided into teams - Steve and Sabina on one and Richard and I on the other, and started to have a ‘conversation” between these two talking drums. The conversation often got quite heated between the teams, but it usually took just one solitary and perfectly-timed hit from Richard for us to dissolve into hysterics. We had only just met Sabina but the amazing thing about music is how easy it is to communicate and play with complete strangers because the language is universal.

Another inspirational collaborator was the singer Miriam Stockley. I had previously worked with her in London and knew that she had all the qualities we were looking for. Her unique talent allows her to sing in an amazing variety of styles; she was brought up in South Africa, speaks Zulu and although she is white, she can confound even African musicians into thinking she is black (which, once again, chimed with the themes of the film and our approach to the score). Sadly, the budget did not allow for us to be in the same place at the same time, but with the wonders of modern technology, I would email her a track and the brief and she would record and send back lots of great ideas to choose from, so it all went very smoothly.

When recording of the score, I “travelled” from LA to South Africa (Buskaid and DDK - our African choir), Florida (Miriam), Prague (a larger, Western orchestra) - all from the comfort of my studio, listening in on the sessions via the internet - so my carbon footprint for this movie is impressively low!

Apart from the talking drums, I had to teach myself to play a number of African instruments, in particular the Kora (a cross between a harp and a guitar - very difficult to tune) and the Udu pots. The Udu pots actually became very important to the score. They are the percussion instrument that was used on the end title song. I was struggling to get a soft sound on them, and my friend Joe Conlon, who provided a lot of feedback throughout, suggested I take off my rings. I wasn’t wearing any rings, so realised my fingers are obviously very boney! In the end I had to wear gloves to dampen the sound.

Playing the birambau was another huge challenge. Even the most experienced player can usually only get two notes from it and I wanted to get more - but, without the talent or the time to learn, it was up to my friends Richard and Steve to help out (again) - one of us would play the sticks, one of use would use the stone to tune it and the other would take care of doing the wah wah on the bowl. If aliens had landed in my studio, we would surely have been abducted for novelty value.

Flimibi Buana is another brilliant musician who played all the woodwind and ethnic flutes (including antelope horn). When we were recording one of the more emotional cues, he looked up at the end of a take and was shocked to find me in tears. His playing was so beautiful - and the commitment of all the musicians who worked on the score so absolute - it was hard not to be swept away in the moment.

The score of SKIN proved to be a great adventure - spiritually, emotionally and of course musically. Writing for and performing so many new and exotic instruments was ultimately as testing as it was fulfilling.

This article is part of a larger report on the Skin movie. Visit our special report. .

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