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How Ludwig Göransson Reclaimed Lost Mayan Music for His ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Score

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The Oscar-winning composer tells IndieWire about finding a sound for Namor’s introduction to the MCU.

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After Ludwig Göransson’s Oscar-winning deep dive into African music for “Black Panther,” the composer went on a very different journey for “Wakanda Forever” — rediscovering lost Mayan music to underscore the beautiful underwater civilization of Talokan (Marvel’s Atlantis in the comics), which is rooted in both Mesoamerican and Nigerian cultures. It was part of director Ryan Coogler’s vision to depict Talokan as an ambiguous counterpart to Wakanda. Led by T’Challa-like King Namor (Tenoch Huerta), Talokan also struggles to protect its ancient culture and special powers from a threatening world.

“I realized that the Mayan music is gone… forcibly erased from this world,” Göransson told IndieWire. “So I started to figure out how I could reimagine what Mayan music sounded like. I went to Mexico City with Ryan and worked with these musical archaeologists that specialize in recreating Mayan music. They’ve been finding instruments in the graves and looking at them and seeing that some of the holes in the flutes had different amounts of fingerprints on them. They were able to determine how the instruments were constructed and played. In paintings, they observed formations of players on turtle shells and sea shells.”

By day in Mexico City, Göransson began recording the distinctive Mayan sounds of the indigenous flutes, shells, shakers, and drums. At night, he worked with contemporary Mexican artists, rappers, and singers, writing songs for the movie that appear on the soundtrack. One of them, “Laayli’ kuxa’ano’one,” was performed by Mayan rappers Pat Boy, Yaalen K’uj, and All Mayan Winik. This can be heard during the end credits after the already popular Oscar contender “Lift Me Up” by Rihanna.

The composer also set up recording sessions in Lagos, Nigeria. Three songs that came out of that are the cover version of “No Woman No Cry,” performed by Tems, “Coming Back For You,” performed by Fireboy DML, and “Anya Mmiri,” performed by CKay featuring PinkPantheress. “One of the biggest differences is that we were trying to make it a completely unique, immersive sound experience,” Göransson said, “where music and songs and score go hand in hand.”

Göransson wrote another song, “Árboles Bajo El Mar,” co-written and performed by Vivir Quintana along with Mare Advertencia. This haunting piece occurs during Namor’s origin story, in which his mother is forced to move into the ocean to escape the brutal assault of the Talokan. “That song was so powerful that some of that vocal melody I used later on in the theme for the Talokan siren song that they use to hypnotize people,” he said. “That came out of me working with Vivir when she came up with this haunting melody. I kind of got hypnotized myself when she started singing and pushing out air when she was breathing. It needed to be enticing and threatening, and we had that sung by a choir of Mexican singers.”

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Another memorable song, “Con La Brisa,” performed by Mexican singer Foudeqush, appears when Namor takes Wakanda princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) on a tour of Talokan. He tries to persuade her to become an ally, but his obsession with power conflicts with her need to defend her country. Indeed, the film serves as a rite of passage for Shuri following the death of her older brother, T’Challa/Black Panther (the late Chadwick Boseman). The film mournfully opens, in fact, with the all-white procession in honor of the Wakanda leader, over which the T’Challa’s theme plays, punctuated by the talking drum motif.

Göransson wrote a new theme for Shuri to underscore the process of grieving and anger that she endures. “When you first hear the theme, it’s sung by Jorja Smith,” he said, “and throughout the story, that theme evolves to evoke the kind of leader that Shuri wants to be. It even takes on a completely different shape in the form of a bombastic synthesizer.”

The new character of Riri Williams/Ironheart (Dominique Thorne), the genius inventor from Chicago who creates a suit of armor rivaling Tony Stark’s, also has her own theme. “She’s from Chicago, so the culture of the city is part of her sound,” Göransson said. “I’m learning about this very progressive music city, including house and hip hop, so I’m just dipping my toe in her character.”

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