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Music In 'Mudbound' Intended To Evoke Earth, Dirt And Mud


We're going to meet the woman behind the score of a new film set in the Mississippi farmlands just after the second world war. "Mudbound" is out today in theaters and on Netflix. It was directed by Dee Rees, and she made an unconventional choice in hiring the film's composer. He's a punk rocker. Tim Greiving says the score for "Mudbound" is intended to evoke earth, dirt and mud.


TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Tamar-kali talks a lot about identity - musical and otherwise.


TAMAR-KALI: I am from Brooklyn, N.Y., but my roots are in the South. My folks didn't immigrate to America. They were brought during the middle passage - my ancestors. So, like, we've been here for centuries.

GREIVING: Besides being Afro-indigenous, she is the daughter of a bass player, the product of a Catholic school education, an English education major and a hardcore punk rocker.


TAMAR-KALI: (Singing) Bottom feeding, belly crawling...

The more aware of my history and my identity, the legacy of enslaved Africans in America and their descendants, the more I was aware of those things. In that young discovery period, the angrier I got. And hardcore - the sounds of hardcore - they were the perfect space to field those things.

GREIVING: Women of color are rare in the punk rock scene.

TAMAR-KALI: You know, being an outlier within the outliers - it just kind of fuels your creativity. The ethos means even more to you because you're, like, practicing it every moment, even in the pit, even at shows, you know?

GREIVING: Tamar-kali received her formal musical education in Catholic school, where she studied theory and classical singing. That found its way into her punk music and precipitated her creating an all-female string sextet that she composes and performs with, the Psychochamber Ensemble.


TAMAR-KALI: (Singing) Who's that girl?

I kind of had a bad taste in my mouth with classical European art forms, whether it be ballet, whether it be classical music. I enjoy these things, but the experiences I had within the paradigm of doing that work as a young, black girl in the '80s were traumatizing - definitely a lot of marginalization, passing over because essentially I couldn't be the face of excellence in that context. But I had a love for the art forms.


TAMAR-KALI: (Singing) Really want to know, who's that girl?

GREIVING: Tamar-kali was featured in a 2003 documentary called "Afro-Punk." Director Dee Rees saw the doc and used some of Tamar-kali's music in the soundtrack for her directing debut, "Pariah," in 2011. When Rees made "Mudbound," an adaptation of the Hillary Jordan novel dealing with racial oppression in the postwar South, she insisted that this Afro-punker would be its composer.

DEE REES: Some of her pieces - like, they're very deep and resonant, and there's, like, a melancholy there. And there's, like, an unexpectedness there. So just from her body of work, honestly, I knew she'd be able to write the score for this film.

GREIVING: For "Mudbound," Tamar-kali wrote an intimate, folksy score for a small string ensemble that reflects the story's sadness, the hardship and the land.


TAMAR-KALI: There's definitely a tone that represents the farm itself because I believe that the farm in the film is definitely a character. Dee gives a lot of impressionistic directives. So we were talking about mud. And sometimes I would give her a first draft version of something, and she'd be like, can we get some more sludge in there?


TAMAR-KALI: (Vocalizing).

GREIVING: All the vocals in the score belong to the composer as well. In scoring her first film, Tamar-kali has stormed yet another traditionally all-white-boys club.

TAMAR-KALI: I guess that's how I roll (laughter), you know?

GREIVING: For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.