To soundtrack the moment in Black Panther when we’re first transported to Wakanda, director Ryan Coogler and score composer Ludwig Göransson knew they needed something special. They found it in Baaba Maal, the legendary Senegalese singer whose unique vocals echo out as we soar over the country’s hilltops. Maal is singing in his native Fula language about the death of an elephant, a metaphor for a fallen monarch.
For the filmmakers, working with Baaba Maal was an opportunity to incorporate African music alongside Kendrick Lamar’s more high-profile soundtrack. For Maal himself, it was a chance to lend his voice to a new kind of storytelling about his home continent: “I like the story a lot, and the challenge of telling the story,” he tells NME. “I confess, I didn’t know the film would have the impact that it has had now! It’s unbelievable. I really, really like the film but I didn’t expect all of that!”
Maal, whose most recent album ‘The Traveller’ was produced by The Very Best’s Johan Hugo in 2016, knows all about combining traditional and modern forms of music and storytelling. “I’m very traditionalist, but also very modern in the way that I love electronic sounds and the way technology changes culture,” says Maal. “The way it comes across in the film is that the culture is ancient, but also it talks to the future as well.”
The collaboration came about after Göransson travelled to northern Senegal to meet Maal at his home in the town of Podor, and then spent several weeks learning about the music of the region. “I’m always touring in very remote places in Senegal, so when he arrived I told him I was going on tour and invited him to go with me,” says Maal. “We left from my hometown, Podor, and then we visited every part of north Senegal. I thought he’d enjoy the tour and also find some inspiration. Then when we came back we jumped in the studio and he recorded me as well as all the other musicians he wanted to record for Black Panther.”
When creating the sound of Wakanda, Maal says that Göransson was not just inspired by the shows he saw on tour but also by the music being made by the public. In Senegal, locals often pay tribute to important figures like Maal by playing drums for them outside their home or when welcoming them into a new town or village.
“When you follow a band like my band around Senegal, it’s not just the band themselves who are going to inspire you, it’s also the population,” says Maal. “Everywhere we go people welcome us and play music. There are a lot of ceremonies in the daytimes. If you’re there and you listen and watch it will give you a lot of inspiration. I think that sort of music is also connected to the story of Black Panther. He heard a lot of songs about kings, and about kingdoms, that have been passed down since ancient times, so I think that was good for him.”
Throughout the score, certain instruments are associated with certain characters. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is often accompanied by the sound of a Fula flute. For Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the score uses the talking drum, a popular West African instrument which can mimic the tone of human speech. “The talking drum is an instrument which comes from far away in the past but leads to the future,” explains Maal. “When you play it, it sounds as if it could fill up the universe.”