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Africa Music Shot 2

Musical Expression

michael — 4 years ago

The sounds of Paris

If I weren’t making films, I’d probably be playing music. It’s always been a big part of my life. So, I knew it would also be a big part of Semisweet.

Music score
When producer Lalita Krishna told me that she knew one of the founders of Broken Social Scene, I was very excited about the idea of someone from the band composing the score for my film.

After a series of phone calls, I finally sat down with multi-instrumentalist Ohad Benchetrit, who has played and recorded with BSS over the years. Ohad turned me on to his other musical project Do Make Say Think. I loved the sprawling feel of their music. Ohad told me he wanted to bring on his DMST writing partner, Justin Small. We shook hands and dove in headfirst. These are the right guys for the job.

When I first started thinking about music for Semisweet, I wanted something that would represent or define each of the four exotic settings in the film.

To do that, you can obviously ask your composer to write something that reflects the personality and flavour of each of those places. But, as they pointed out, nothing ever beats the real thing – real local music from the place itself.

In keeping with that thinking, I really caught a break in Africa. As I was traveling in an area south of Banfora – in southwestern Burkina Faso, a man in a village asked me if I was up for hearing a group of local musicians. Was I ever.

Three young guys showed up with their koras (a 21-string instrument made from a large gourd) and djembe drums. I filmed them as they started walking to this beautiful delta area – fishermen and washerwomen busy in the background. I was completely blown away – not only by the playing, but also by their sheer energy and passion. These guys weren’t just performing -- they were truly feeling every note they played. This wasn’t some tourist moment. This was real. And, for the film, it’s one of those magical moments that thrust the viewer into the setting.

What does this sound like to you
In France, local music also came calling. As we were shooting various images around the ÎIe Saint-Louis section of Paris, we came across a street musician playing the accordion. The man spoke neither French nor English. He was a gypsy. But, through pantomime I was able to make him understand that I wanted him to play for us on camera. Yes, I left him a really big tip.

In the end, it might seem very clichéd to connect Paris with the sound of the accordion, but I can think of no single instrument that best personifies that city.

By comparison, the Canadian and American stories posed a real musical challenge. How do you represent these less musically defined cultures?

Hershey Park

For the Hershey story, what struck me most about the town was its strong carnival atmosphere. Everything is over the top. Imagine living in the middle of Disneyland. That’s Hershey. So, to best personify that, I decided to mimic the music I first heard when I walked through its huge amusement park. As I walked the crowded grounds, I was nearly blasted out of my shoes by the sudden burst of music coming from a century-old carrousel. It was old marching music – much in the vein of John Phillip Sousa. It’s the kind of patriotic music you hear at US college football games – with lots of peppy cheerleaders bouncing around.


Given its distinctive flavour and panache, marching music isn’t the type of thing you can easily ask a composer to replicate. And it’s not like we had the budget to hire and record a full marching band. So, in the end, we licensed one of Sousa’s most familiar marches: Semper Fidelis, which is the official march of the Unites States Marine Corps. Seems fitting. I think that song really captures the scale and fervour of Hershey Pennsylvania and sets up the more whimsical and personal aspects of Jonathan’s story.


Music was a real problem when it came to the story of Ron and Nadine. Since they live in quiet isolation in the wilds of Haliburton, Ontario, there was really nothing in the way of local music to suggest a musical voice for their story. After all, what is most distinctive and immediately noticeable in the “Land of Is” is the total absence of music.

Ron & Nadine

So, instead, I decided to look inwards. Since Ron and Nadine are very spiritual people (Ron even chants in the film), I felt that a meditative piece (a type of song often referred to as an “Om”) could be the answer. I think it was the right choice.

When I said earlier that there was really nothing in the way of local music to suggest a musical voice for Ron and Nadine’s story, I wasn’t exactly being accurate. During the David Wolfe event, as we were filming guests slowly arriving, I suddenly began paying attention to the music that was being piped out of a sound system set up near the podium where David was to speak. The song in question was You Are the Sunshine of My Life, a popular 70s tune from Stevie Wonder. Except it wasn’t Stevie’s version. It was a Musak version. In this one, Stevie had been replaced by Zamfir – or someone like him. What struck me at the time was the idea that someone chose that version over the original. Why? I didn’t know the answer but somehow – as I watched yogis, naked toddlers, swimming guinea pigs, and mudpeople basking in the sun – it all seemed strangely appropriate.

Music Notes

Incredibly, when I got back home, I found that exact Musak version of Stevie’s song online. The problem is that we couldn’t afford the rights. So, I searched high and low for something with the same tone and cheesiness. I finally found it. It’s called Elevator World. It might never become a hit single but I’m sure glad I have it. I think it’s actually even better than that strange version of You Are the Sunshine of My Life. It’s so real, I can almost smell the mud.

Cacao, Cocoa, documentary, FairTradeChocolate, michaelblog, Semisweet

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