- Composed by Sarah Class
- Silva Screen / 2013 / 69m
Regular readers will no doubt have noticed over the years my penchant for natural history documentaries – and the BBC has been the leader in that field for a long time, with David Attenborough the usual face. I was surprised when I saw that their landmark 2013 offering would be Africa – was there truly anything new to say about the wildlife of this most-studied continent? The answer was a resounding yes, with modern filming techniques offering fresh views of familiar tales, but more importantly plenty of fascinating all-new material documenting the planet’s greatest creatures.
Many composers have lent their musical voices to these tales over the years but of course the one who has become most associated with it is George Fenton, whose magnificent music has blessed a number of the finest of the series, including most recently the exceptional Frozen Planet. It’s a new voice for Africa, though – that of Sarah Class, a classically-trained composer who has also released albums as a singer/songwriter and contributed to “crossover” albums for the likes of Hayley Westenra. She’s composed music for BBC wildlife documentaries before – most notably 2011’s wonderful Madagascar – but I believe this is the first of them to appear on album.
The music of Africa certainly inhabits the same sonic world as Fenton’s – there is elegant, long-lined melody, warm orchestration, a keen sense of drama – but also takes a few surprising turns. The album opens with “Journey of the King Fish”, a beautifully warm piece; then the main theme is heard in the slightly more dramatic “Rivers and Falls”, one of the most Fentonesque pieces here. It’s in “Force of the Whale” that things take a slightly unexpected turn, with lots of percussion adding a driving force to the music that would make it at home in a modern action film – combining with the main theme, it’s a really impressive piece. Later, “Bull Elephant Fight” is another full-bodied piece of action music.
“Giraffe vs Giraffe” – perhaps the series’ most memorable sequence – is full-on Morriconean spaghetti western music, guitars and trumpet and Mexicana – it was such a daring choice it took a bit of getting used to with the images, but it’s another delightful piece on the album. “Leopard Mirage” is a great piece, atmospheric synths and guitar accompanied by ethereal voices; these distinctive touches really give this score a feel of its own and add to its appeal. Of course, it’s not all lightness and joy in the animal world and Class explores darker areas too, such as in the tense, dramatic “Bats and Eagles”. “Drought” – at six minutes, the album’s longest track – is a bleak piece, but somehow retains a great beauty.
There’s a hint of John Barry in the repeated figure which runs through the gorgeous “By the Beach”, one of the strongest pieces on the album – and more than a hint of Fenton again as the expressive melody crescendos at the conclusion. There are occasionally more lighthearted moments – “Bangweulu Swamp” is one of the best, another really nice piece; later, “Lions and Lizards Rock Cafe” is a delightful comic vignette. But it’s the more serious material that really shines – the wordless female vocal solo in “The Desert Victor” for instance is stunning, before the piece transforms to a bleak, atmospheric soundscape in its later stages, contrasting with the great beauty of the next cue, the grand, sweeping “Up in the Clouds”. It will be those beautiful pieces that stand out for most people – “Mystery Path” is classically orchestral, particularly elegant and quite beautiful. Later, “Fairy Circles”, “Shimmer of the Flower Fields” and “Under the Stars” are as evocative and attractive as their names suggest.
Africa is a treat of an album. As mentioned, there are clear echoes of Fenton’s style, but Class takes things off in her own direction too, with some of the quirkier touches and the use of electronics – and there are many repeated themes here, which is not generally the case in Fenton’s documentary music, which tends to be a series of self-contained pieces. There’s often an epic sweep to the music which is very hard to resist and this comes highly recommended.
Rating: **** 1/2