SOAS University of London

SOAS scholars teach Roots actors Mandinka language and music for remake of 1970s blockbuster

6 February 2017
Roots 1
Malian musician Ousmane Dagno and Dr Lucy Durán during the shoot of the 'Harvest festival'

Ethnomusicologist Dr Lucy Durán, and kora player Kadialy Kouyate, of the Music Department at SOAS, were advisors on the music, language and culture for the first two episodes of the remake of the legendary ROOTS TV series, to be broadcast in the UK for the first time on BBC Four on February 8, 2017.

The adaptation of Alex Haley's Pulitzer-winning novel chronicles the history of a Mandinka warrior, Kunta Kinte, who was sold into slavery in America, but whose descendants kept alive his name and memory and aspects of his Mandinka cultural heritage. In 1977, when ROOTS was first broadcast on television, it attracted an estimated 140 million viewers around the world and was a ground-breaking representation of African American identity and ancestry.

The new series stars Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Anna Paquin and London-born actor Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, and was produced by Mark Wolper, the son of the original producer.

Roots 2
Kadialy Kouyate playing the role of the griot in Roots.

The SOAS Department of Music in the School of Arts was called upon to help ensure historical accuracy in the first two episodes of the programme, working with celebrated film director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-proof Fence; Catch a Fire). Dr Durán, Senior Lecturer in African Music, provided expert advice on all cultural matters including Senegambia’s Mandinka language (part of the wider Mande culture of West Africa). She recorded and composed some of the key music for the first two episodes, such as the slave rebellion song on board the slave ship and the Mandinka Ringshout danced on Kunta Kinte’s first Christmas Eve on the plantation. She also produced the music performed at the harvest festival scene in Juffure, The Gambia, featured in the first episode.

Producer of Roots Mark Wolper said: “Dr Lucy Duran was critical to most every aspect of our Africa Shooting, Development and even post production.  She served to vet our scripts for history, culture and language.  She led us in our music development and implementation on the set.  In addition, she often directed and advised us on the additional experts and talent that we need to maintain authenticity of the program.  During post-production, she was invaluable toward language research and advice.  Musically she led all the Africa-based music and lyrics in conjunction with our composers.”

Kadialy Kouyate, who teaches the kora at SOAS, in addition to translating and training the actors to pronounce their Mandinka lines, and advising on scenes such as that of the Mandinka initiations and circumcision, also plays the kora in the Harvest festival in Episode 1.

Levar Burton, who played the original Kunta Kinte, and is co-producer of the new series with Dr Lucy Durán.

Dr Durán said: “In the original Roots TV series, the Gambia sequences - shot in Hollywood – did not accurately represent Senegambian culture. In the remake, both director Phillip Noyce and series producer Mark Wolper were determined to reimagine as accurately as possible the period when Kunta Kinte would have lived (mid-18th century). I am happy to have been able to contribute to this important representation of cultural life in pre-colonial Senegambia, working with actors on the film set and bringing in top Mande musicians to perform the music. I believe this contributes to a more nuanced portrayal of the environment from which Kunta Kinte was so violently removed”.

ROOTS was first broadcast in the US on 30 May at 9pm on the History Channel and A&E, and will be shown in the UK on BBC Four from 8 February 2017 onwards.