Composer Tamar-kali's Alchemy Of Dirt And Music For 'Mudbound'

Scott Ellison Smith
Tamar-kali

Mudbound has generated awards buzz for its unflinching look at life in the violent, segregationist South. The story, based on novelist Hillary Jordan’s prize-winning work, follows the lives of two families -- one black, one white -- on a Mississippi cotton farm in 1946.

In a breakthrough role, Mary J. Blige plays a long-suffering matriarch and also co-wrote and performs the end-title song “Mighty River.” The prestige pedigree also stars Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund. The film is in theaters and available for streaming on Netflix, which picked it up for $12.5 million in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

For the film’s composer, Tamar-kali, her feature score debut’s most influential character was the omnipresent mud. The score “comes from an emotional place, a scenic place,” Tamar-kali says, adding that she and director Dee Rees “talked about the physicality of the mud, and how I might present that in the compositions, the sound of the farm, which was almost like a character in the film” to be established sonically.  

“Ancestors. Dark strings.” Those were the three words Rees used to guide Tamar-kali. “My hope for this score is that it would sound like it bubbled up from the earth, that it was ‘in the trees,’ and would simultaneously evoke the indifference of nature and the resilience of humanity,” Rees said in a statement to Billboard. “Tamar-kali did just that. She made the rocks cry out.” The result “is not period-connected in any way," the composer says.  A hint of a vocal on the “Mudbound Theme” provides “the only taste of the blues in the score. Everything else is a bare chamber ensemble with a new classical vibe.”

It was the director’s choice to go with an impressionistic, all-strings score for Mudbound that steers clear of references to Southern heritage music, although the soundtrack, from Milan Records, includes three standards: Odetta’s classic “Glory, Glory” and three jazz standards recorded by New Orleans musicians performing source music for the film. Credited on the soundtrack as The Ek-Stompers, “that was Dee and I winking at each other,” says music supervisor Evyen Klean.

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The Brooklyn-born and -based Tamar-kali, a post-punk rocker who also performs with a chamber ensemble at venues including the Museum of Modern Art, had less than five weeks to write and lock the score, her third collaboration with director Dee Rees. “It was so guerrilla,” she said of her work with a seven-piece string ensemble. “I did two days of recording and a week of mixing, but it was such a great opportunity I definitely wanted to meet the challenge.” The result is a surprisingly restrained, emotionally complex aural accompaniment to the tragic tale The Hollywood Reporter called “an epic that creeps up on you.”

Tamar-kali’s first film work was providing songs for the Rees’ acclaimed 2011 feature debut, Pariah. The Focus Features release about a girl coming of age prompted a search “to find artists this teenager might be into,” Tamar-kali says.  A singer and guitarist, her riff-driven yet melodic rock, evocative of Nirvana, fit the bill. “From there it expanded to me doing a cameo in the film, performing.”

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As Rees became aware of the scope of Tamar-kali’s work -- which includes the experimental classical Psychochamber Ensemble -- Rees tried to hire her as composer for her 2015 HBO film Bessie, but was ultimately steered to the more established Rachel Portman (although Tamar-kali lends her soulful voice to two blues classics for the soundtrack). The experience with Bessie informed Rees’ negotiations to ensure final say on the composer for her next film.

Tamar-kali drew on a wide variety of musical inspiration in forming her genre-defying aesthetic. “Music was a major part of my growing up,” says the performer (born Tamara Colletta Brown). “My father was a bass player, but also because there is such a strong tradition of music in Afro-indigenous homes,” she says, sidestepping the term African-American. “By Afro-indigenous I mean my family isn’t immigrants. They didn’t come here in contemporary times, they’ve been here for centuries, descended from people who were brought over during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So we’re part of the fabric of the United States in term of jazz and blues. That’s part of my cultural identity.”

Her mother was born in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Tamar-kali spent her summers on St. Helena where “my family had a little juke joint, so I was exposed to musicians coming into town that played our club.” She studied choral singing as well as music theory in high school before briefly enrolling as an English major at Adelphi University. “I thought I was going to teach. The idea of being a professional musician just seemed so fantastical to me,” she says. She dropped out after a couple of semesters and took day jobs in retail and banking, performing in coffee houses by night before segueing into punk. “I play guitar and some bass for my projects, but my chief instrument is my voice and I just use instruments as a tool to get out what I’m hearing already,” she says.

Last year she was commissioned by Central Park Summer Stage to compose for a dance ensemble. The result formed the jumping-off point for her current project, Demon Fruit Blues, in development for the Harlem Stage Waterworks with a planned spring 2019 debut. The work explores the Biblical roots of misogyny through a combination of rock, gospel and blues suffused with classical and African roots music.

With her big tent of influences, does Tamar-kali think her own demographic identity as black and female will help heighten her profile in the world of film composing, where both are rare? “When you’re talking about women composers, who are less than one percent of the film composer population, I don’t think [being black] is going to tip the needle,” she says. “The work is the way. I need to be creating. That’s what’s going to feed my soul and drive my career forward. The opportunity to collaborate with artists in other disciplines is an exciting place to be because I’m influenced by so many mediums – visual art, film, literature, dance. Working with people who are inspirational is the sweet spot for me.”