How Composer Germaine Franco Brought Her Own Take On “The Sound Of Magical Realism” To ‘Encanto’

When Germaine Franco began composing the score for Encanto, the directors knew they didn’t want the sound of a traditional Disney film. Franco began experimenting with Colombian instruments and rhythms to create the sound of Latin American magic.

Encanto takes place in a magical town sheltered by mountains, created when Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) lost her husband and prayed for a miracle to save her three children. The idea of magic being born out of emotion was important to make the film based in Latin American magic, rather than European.

As opposed to the sounds associated with European fantasy, Latin American magical realism comes with the influences of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous cultures. Franco used traditional Colombian instruments and cumbia, the national rythym of Colombia, to score this Latin American Disney film.

Franco’s score for Encanto has been shortlisted for the Best Score category at the Oscars this year.

DEADLINE: What did the directors have in mind for the score?

GERMAINE FRANCO: Well, they wanted it to not be a Hollywood score. They didn’t want it to sound like a traditional, huge score for with the Disney-fantasy sound. They weren’t sure what the direction would be, which was actually good for me because I got to experiment and come up with my own sound, but still within the Disney world. I really wanted to make it sound like this idea of magical realism in literature, which is like another world beyond this world.

So, how can we get that magical feeling without doing the traditional score? They weren’t 100% sure what that would sound like, but they asked me to experiment. Overall, they wanted me to obviously use traditional Colombian instruments and some traditional Colombian rhythms as well.

DEADLINE: Which instruments are traditional in Colombian music?

FRANCO: For sure the string instruments, there’s this thing called a tiple, bandola is another one, a cuatro. There’s a harp called an arpa llanera, which is a specific harp to Colombia because a lot of Latin American countries have their own harps and they sound different. And then also the flutes, there’s a thing called a gaita, which is a long flute played with this special mouthpiece. And then there’s the indigenous elements of the drums, there’s the tamboras and these other drums called cununos and a percussion-scraped instruments for that cumbia called a guacharaca. Those were the main instruments and of course guitar, which was brought to the Latin American countries from Spain.

DEADLINE: Did you have a lot of experience with Colombian music before you began?

FRANCO: Well, I had experience with one of their forms, which is the cumbia. Cumbia is like the national rhythm of Colombia. I had experience with the Mexican cumbia, but that was kind of my jumping off point into Colombian rhythms and then I found so many more rhythms that I hadn’t known. So, I just listened to thousands of hours of recordings and videos and documentaries because unfortunately I couldn’t go to Colombia because of COVID. So, this whole score was done through the COVID pandemic and luckily the vaccines came out and we were able to get together in person.

But I had to do a lot of research, which is one of my favorite things to do. I love jumping in when somebody gives me a challenge and then I start with all my spreadsheets and my links and listening and analyzing. Then I actually start writing and I pick different rhythms and themes to develop in that style. Kind of like sketches, if you are an artist you do the sketches first and then decide which ones you like the best.

DEADLINE: When I spoke with the directors, Charise Castro Smith talked about magical realism being born out of emotion, but she also talked about Latin American magic being very different than European magic, and you were saying they didn’t want it to sound like a Disney movie, which traditionally have a lot of European influences for their stories. What are the big differences there?

FRANCO: I think one of them would be the approach of the fantasy. The Disney fantasy, you would automatically hear like certain strings and tinkly, high-pitched instruments. And then with Latin American magical realism, the sounds and textures are different because there’s more indigenous influence in it as well as the mix of the Afro-Colombian because we got the three cultures, we have the European, then we have the indigenous, and then we have the African elements. So, every Latin American country has their own cultural sound and so magical realism as a whole in Latin America is a different approach.

I also think there’s a difference in the supernatural, in that people really do believe that. It’s not like, “oh now we’re putting on a Disney movie and we’re going into the fantasy world.” For people in Latin America, that is part of their daily lives and there’s ceremonies and spiritual connections that are not considered fantasy, but part of the world. If you go look at the different native tribes, to them it’s not a fantasy it’s part of their culture and connection with that world.

I think it’s those two things, I mean that’s only my personal perception. I can’t really speak for everyone in Colombia, but I had to come up with my approach because I couldn’t go there. I had to use my past experiences, which includes my native Mexican heritage and I love Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, all of the Latin American writers and I feel so inspired by them. So, I just wanted to come up with my take on it. My take on the sound of magical realism.

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