The Music of Ruined
Music can be incorporated into a play for a variety of reasons: to set the tone of a particular scene, to give performances a rich, emotional underscoring, or to give audiences a sharper look at the setting of a particular play. For Ruined, Lynn Nottage wrote several songs to be performed by the girls in Mama Nadi’s bar accompanied by a two-person band of guitar and drums. Introducing song in this way creates an authentic musical atmosphere and enhances the already vibrant world of the play.
Aaron Meicht, who composed and arranged the music for the Huntington production, strove for authenticity. African music has a unique and diverse sound, rich with infl uences from musical styles ranging from American jazz to tribal sounds of traditional African music. Meicht notes, “We wanted to give audiences a picture of real Central African music. Often a generic ‘African’ sound stands in for theatre music. This is always a let-down. The greatness of the musical tradition in Africa really comes from the incredible diversity. We have tried to use the research to give a foundation for the performers to explore.”
With just two people, Meicht and his musicians are able to create a surprisingly varied sound. One musician plays the electric guitar, and the other performs on a makeshift percussion set, designed in collaboration with Meicht and the percussionist. “I have encouraged the percussionist to develop his own setup,” says Meicht. “We accomplish this by looking at the research, discussing the options and then, really, just letting imaginations run.” The biggest difference in music from production to production, Meicht notes, is the percussion because of how much freedom he encourages each drummer to have while building his drum set. The percussion setup for this production includes a Makuta drum, a traditional instrument from Central Africa; a bass drum made from a rubber trash can; various cymbals; and a few shakers.
Soji Odukogbe, the guitarist for this production, is originally from Nigeria and has expertise in different styles of African guitar. His knowledge of the Soukous style of Congolese music was invaluable in creating an authentic sound. Soukous, a derivative of the French word secousse, meaning shake, is a genre of dance music that originated in Belgian Congo and French Congo during the 1930s and has gained popularity throughout Africa.
Along with Daniel Baker, his partner in Broken Chord Collective, Meicht also creates the sound design for the production. They incorporate sounds of the jungle — birds, monkeys, the rain — to create an appropriate atmosphere, but also to make a musical environment that blends into and supports the sound of the band.
The actors are also crucial to creating a unique sound for each production. “The songs I wrote stay pretty much intact formally,” notes Meicht, “However, the interpretations of the musicians and singers bring new life to each song.” There are two characters that sing in the show — Sophie and Mama Nadi — their songs are different in style, and each actress has a unique way of singing. “Finding the sound of the song through the development of the character is how the music becomes so integrated,” says Meicht, and that integration helps add an exciting and engaging element to Lynn Nottage’s already thrilling play.
— Chris Carcione