A Conversation with Nainita Desai

Ned Jordan
In Short
I discuss the inspiration, instrumentation, and work behind the soundtrack for Tales of Kenzera: ZAU with its composer, Nainita Desai.

NJ: How do you see the role of the music in this game? How is this journey reflected through the music?

ND: Well, you know, I mean, there is a duality to the game, and there is a duality to the score as well. And one of the things that Abu [Abubakar Salim, founder of Surgent Studios] said to me was, what is the sound of grief, and how do we represent that through music?

You know, as Abu's said, we're talking about him trying to explain to the team, we're expressing emotions here. This is very emotion-led, and so that was one of the tasks that I had. And it's not just about creating this fun and beautiful experience that people can play. There's a lot of kinetic energy to the game, and that's inherent in Metroidvania games, which is fantastic. But it's also to give a new perspective on looking at grief. And so that was something that was expressed through the various tracks and also the various biomes and the boss fights. Each of the boss fights - they're all epic, but they all had to represent a different emotion. Some were more anxiety-led, some were fear-based, some were terror, some were very aggressive-led. And so that was one of the tasks of the music.

And then there's this emotional gravitas - human emotions are messy and chaotic. And sometimes as a teenager you can feel you just feel very happy and everything's bouncy and wonderful, and then the next day you just don't want to get out of bed, and you're on an emotional roller coaster. So that was something that I had to express as well, emotionally.

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NJ: How much did you incorporate traditional Western African music into the soundtrack?

ND: That was by far, so much fun. So obviously everything in the game is based on mythology, and then we're covering generally the entire African diaspora. So, we wanted to be steeped with orchestral elements, but that had to be fused with African traditional instrumentation as well. And choirs, too, to bring in this feel of the ancestors and the shamans and the folklore. And then the Afrofuturistic aspect of the game, because we're talking about the game being set in, part of the game being set in the city of Omani in the future in 2089, so it's a city of technology and innovation and progress. You have this musical duality in the score, so I'm bringing in the Afrofuturism through the use of very modern contemporary electronics and synths and beats.

So those three, if you think of it as the three apexes of a triangle, you've got the Afrofuturism, the very modern sounds, you've got the orchestra, which is the use of the traditional orchestra, very emotionally led. And then you've got the African Bantu mythology represented by very traditional African instrumentation.

By fusing these three elements together, I think we've hopefully created something quite special that has a touchstone in all these different aspects of the game. So, for example, instead of just layering on many scores that you hear, just lay on ethnicity or world music elements on top of an orchestra. And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to embed these Bantu mythology African ethnicity elements into the DNA of the score, so what the orchestra plays is also African-based; the rhythms are very complex.

I love doing research and I dived into a lot of Afrofuturistic influences and I did read a lot of PhD papers and theses on Afrofuturistic music and watched films and documentaries about what is Afrofuturism. And the orchestral elements are imbued with this harmonic language and rhythms of African traditions, and we're incorporating these highly percussive rhythms with strings in the orchestra, which are really, really challenging to play. And the orchestral score was recorded at Abbey Road, and we brought in as many diverse musicians as we could. That was really important to me to inject as much authenticity and maintain the integrity to the to the pillars, the core pillars of the game and what it what it stands for.

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So, we have these fantastic orchestral players, and then I brought in one of the benchmarks of traditional West African music is the, the ancestral griot tradition, which literally means storyteller, and you can only be a griot. You're born into it, where the music is passed down generation to generation. And there are so many different instruments used within that tradition that I brought in that are pulling from all the various West African tribes. So, for example I brought in a West African master percussion player who plays the djembe and the dundun, these big African drums from the Ivory Coast. Then I've got someone like Baba Gale Kante who plays the fulani flute that you find in Guinea and Mali. And also Kadi Ali Koyate who plays the kora which is a West African stringed instrument that sounds very much like a harp. And then to bridge between these traditional African elements and the Western music, Western orchestra, I brought in this black British cellist, Elliot Bailey who plays the cello, and he brings a lyricism that bridges the gap between the West and Africa.

Working with these specialist musicians, they're not used to doing film and TV and game sessions. They are the real deal, and they don't even read traditional notation. So, I was working with them in a kind of griot traditional way, which is this storytelling you know I'm passing down these, these melodies that I've written and the influences that I've had and communicating it to them in the studio live, where they're improvising and they're bringing their cultural influences and their upbringings, and injecting it into the score, and that was so special and very personal.

And then the choirs, that was the icing on the cake because I influenced by the narrative of the game and the storytelling. I wrote lyrics that were connected to the game. You know, things like, give me direction, I'm on my way, some of these phrases are very personal to Zuberi and to Zau, and talking about grief, talking about the loss of his father, things like I'll never forget the lessons you taught me, you know, wonderful phrases like this, that I translated into Zulu and Swahili, because both my parents were brought up in Africa, in South Africa, and West, and Kenya, and so they speak the local languages. And so I said, please mom, please dad, translate this into these languages.

I then presented it to the choirs, I found an amazing eight-piece choir in South Africa, in Johannesburg that we recorded, and they just elevate the score. they bring these solo singing and songs and lyrics into the music that really sort of embedded into the game. You don't realize this as the gamer, you may not speak these languages, but I think hopefully the emotions of what they're saying come through to you and connect with you as you're playing the game. You don't even have to understand these lyrics to understand the emotion of what they're trying to translate and bring over to you.

So, I brought in an African choir, and I also brought in the choir called Vocality in London at Angel Studios that sang on Black Panther. And they, I didn't want to bring in voices that, that sing gospel music, for example, this is not a gospel choir. The tonality and the quality of their vocals are very much based in Africa, and, and that's kind of bound to the African diaspora. That was something that was really important to me and it was really hard to find these players they're so, you know, they're a rarity, but it was important to shine a spotlight on these incredible musicians and, and just champion them and bring them out to the world. So, those are some of the aspects of the musicians and the singers that I brought on, onto the score.

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NJ: Were you developing the score all through the gameplay development process? Did you find that some elements in the gameplay drove some of your ideas for the score and vice versa? Did any of the themes or tones that you put into the score drive any gameplay decisions?

ND: Yeah, well I was involved with Surgent Studios pretty much from the very beginning. The most intense period of composing for me was over a year and a half, ordering on to nearly two years of work constantly writing music based on the briefs from Abu and our lead audio designer, Robert Brown, and Robert was a great intermediator between myself and Abu in terms of trying to translate the complexity of the different aspects of the game and the combat and the exploration and the biomes and how the narrative was evolving as the game progressed and the game was being written. And so there were some early experiments that I did, that I wrote, and some of them worked, some of them didn't work, you know, because the game was evolving for such a long period of time.

But I'm a very visually inspired composer. So, I would be given videos of gameplay, and I would be given images from the team, the designers of the costumes, the clothes, and different landscapes that really influenced me. And hopefully that then as I would write pieces, they would be presented to the team, who would then provide feedback. But, I also think it would get yelps of joy when something was brought to life with, with some of the music tracks and that would then inspire me in return. So it was a wonderful sort of cyclical inspirational journey for all of us, I think.

So, when Abu said the highlands represent anxiety, that was part of the musical brief for all these different biomes, you know, the Deadlands and the Woodlands and the mysterious, creepy quality and the caves and the waterfalls - they all had a different emotion that I had to express.

So, yes, we were all feeding off one another and inspiring one another. And it was, you know, fantastic to see how the game was evolving with all the different levels.

The colors, the colors are so important. There's a strong link between color and emotion, and music as a result. So, the depth, the richness of the visuals were - the purples and the blues and these beautiful colors would feed into the emotional tone of the music where it might be somber and emotional and dramatic. And again, with the landscapes - the Deadlands, the dry sparseness of the desert and how that would feed into the space in the music and the sound palette that I was using to reflect those different landscapes and emotions. So, that's really what I'm hoping to do is kind of expand upon this universe as a whole.

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Transmitted: 7/14/2024 5:26:21 PM