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«The Discoverer of the Discoverers» offers an immersive experience, its images bathed in music from start to finish. The soundtrack, so central to the experience, was engineered by Stian Kjelstad Granmo in a WWII bunker built by Polish POWs during the German occupation of Norway. Stian, a producer, multi-instrumentalist and member of post-rock duo Locult, tweaked sounds and played overdubs to embellish crude demo loops I’d constructed from various historic source materials.


As «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» in large part deals with history, its original motion picture soundtrack uses samples designed to instil in the audience a general feeling of distant past. Since wax cylinder and vintage gramophone recordings crackle and pop with a surface noise reminiscent of bygone eras, my hope was that samples of these would convey a sense of history.


Encounters between West Africa and Western Europe c. 1548 are inseparable from the so-called New World and the colonies that would soon grow from Europe’s twin obsessions of religious zealotry and desperate greed. Yet both cause and effect of the Atlantic slave trade—Europe and the Americas—are largely missing from «The Discoverer of the Discoverers», the film having been shot entirely on location in Benin. So in scoring the short, to emphasise Europe I chose to draw from the wellspring of my cultural heritage. As other European filmmakers in Africa before me, my gaze too comes from a decidedly white vantage point. Instead of masking this, I set about deconstructing Western classical music, hoping to dislodge from its clichéd, self-satisfied notions of civilisation precisely what any notion of «civilisation» tries so desperately, but always vainly, to escape: violent greed born of a fear of nature.


The notion of a first encounter between previously unfamiliar worlds brought to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey—specifically its use of György Ligeti’s otherworldly micropolyphony. But Ligeti composed those awe-inducing, ecstatically terrifying pieces more than 400 years after the first Portuguese are said to have landed at Kpatè’s feet. By that time, Europe’s colonial grip was rapidly loosening. So I turned to what I thought might be Ligeti’s most significant influence: Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, musical darling of Renaissance Europe.


Not only a visionary artist whose polyphonic choral compositions encapsulate the intertwined and ever-changing flow of conflicting emotions, Palestrina was alive when Kpatè’s descendants say their ancestor first discovered Portuguese discoverers. So vintage recordings of three of his works show up in mangled, fragmented or looped form at various points in «The Discoverer of the Discoverers».


Palestrina was Italian. Although Italy gave the world what we might call the discoverers’ discoverer—Christopher Columbus—and many early investors in the Atlantic slave trade were Italian (particularly Venetian), a Portuguese composer would fit the bill even better. I could hardly believe my luck, then, when research led me to «the Musician King»: Not only did King John IV rule the Portuguese Empire from 1640 to 1656, he also wrote books (one of them in defence of Palestrina, who had gone out of style by then) and composed music. Listen intently and strains may perhaps be discerned, somewhere along «The Discoverer of the Discoverers»’s 25 minutes, of «Crux fidelis», a composition at times attributed to the king. (John IV’s manuscript seems to be lost, and the sheet music allegedly written by him has been judged by some experts to be an invented «reconstruction» from the 1800s.)


In one scene in the film, a direct descendant of Kpatè—Mitó Kpatènon Mijlèhounkpon Mènouéwa—is enstooled as head of the Kpatènon and Ahombakla families. Dignitaries eat from china said to have been given to their ancestors by the Portuguese 469 years previously. For this sequence, a loop of Portuguese court music seemed to make sense. The stately, regal cembalo accompanying the ceremony comes courtesy of an archival recording of a composition written in the second half of the 1700s. Its composer—João de Sousa Carvalho—served as music teacher to the Portuguese royal family.


Africa was not only the obsession of kings, explorers, profiteers and other will-to-power types. Many European artists, as well, were fascinated by the discoverers’ new frontier. Which is why the film’s soundtrack samples recordings, from the early 1900s, of German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s final opera—specifically the scene that reenacts Vasco da Gama’s first sighting of the West African coast, somewhere along the Bight of Benin.


The soundtrack features various other samples of vintage recordings as well: A pope reciting the Hail Mary echoes the religious justification that underpinned Europe’s colonial project. Chinese court music—a genre dating as far back as 618, making it the oldest surviving court music in the world—provides the soundtrack to the sailors’ gifts of fine china depicting Far Eastearn motifs. And various recordings from what was once Portuguese possessions in South America bring «the New World» into the mix: Field recordings of Gbè folk music carried over the Atlantic, a vintage studio rendition of Antônio Carlos Gomes’ Brazilian opera The Slave, and more.


Last, but certainly not least, there’s the song sung by Kpatènon family griot, Mr Avocèvouyè Akéhintô Zounvi, on location for the film’s shoot. But that song merits its own page.



C.S. Nicholson


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