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Revisiting Nollywood’s Original Music Score Era: What Soundtracks Reveal About the Progress of Nigeria’s Film Industry

Revisiting Nollywood’s Original Music Score Era: What Soundtracks Reveal About the Progress of Nigeria’s Film Industry

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Perhaps in a bid to compensate for the low-quality production, the soundtracks of the 90s prioritised vocal dexterity and storytelling, helping audiences better understand and relate to a movie’s plot…

By Joseph Jonathan

The essence of music can be understood in the various purposes it serves; whether as a means of orientation; to create social awareness, to appeal to the senses by evoking emotions, or simply, and most importantly, to entertain. People say that “music is food for the soul” as a reference to the penetrative power of music. It is this understanding that makes music an important tool in filmmaking, through which an emotional connection with the audience is created. Movies usually represent and mirror society through visual representation of stories, and soundtracks (music made for and/or used in movies) add to the experience by communicating emotions, complementing the storyline, and sometimes, expressing a character’s deepest thoughts. This helps a film elicit better emotional responses from an audience.

For instance, Indian (Bollywood) movies have become popular for their music, with feet tapping, hips swinging from side to side, and hands clapping songs and choreography. These soundtracks rouse the audience while still accentuating the storyline. In Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), a memorable soundtrack was “Tujhe Dekha Toh“, which beautifully captured the blossoming love between the lead characters, Raj and Simran, and set the romantic tone for the film.

Nollywood is not left out in the use of music in film, as the industry is replete with its fair share of entertaining and memorable soundtracks. These soundtracks were usually original music scores created for particular movies, to help drive home a movie’s message. Their usage in film reveals, among many things,  the different stages of development of  Nigeria’s film industry. 

The 90s era of Nollywood was reflective of the kind of music Nigerians enjoyed or listened to the most. Music composers at the time were heavily influenced by Western music such as Hip-Hop and R&B. Nollywood, at the time, was also undergoing a transition period from cinema and television productions to the newfound video film (home video) technology, therefore the soundtracks were not the best in quality. A common problem was the lower audio fidelity which made the soundtracks less clear, with distortions here and there.

(Read also – Scores and Original Soundtracks: Nollywood’s Untapped Goldmine?)

Movies like Glamour Girls (1994) and Domitila (1996) aptly capture this sentiment with soundtracks that have a Western undertone. The soundtracks in Glamour Girls captures the vibrant and bustling atmosphere of Lagos nightlife during the 1990s. It conveys the excitement, allure, and fast-paced lifestyle of the city, which is central to the film’s plot. These Western-inspired soundtracks continued up until the early 2000s. In Final Whistle (2000) for example, we see the lead characters Richard (Saint Obi) and Fina (Rita Nwankwo) briefly turn into R&B singers as they profess love to each other at the beach. Soundtracked by Stanley Okorie, the movie went on to become a commercial success, with audiences gushing over Richard and Fina’s love. Stanley Okorie was a popular voice on many movie soundtracks in the 90s and 2000s, and his music did a lot more than just progress the movies’ plots. The songs could heighten the tension and suspense in these films, and also summarise events that take place through the course of the movies, and this was possible because most of the music was written from scratch solely for a particular film.

Nigerian composer, Stanley Okorie, better know for creating several movie soundtracks of the 90s and early 2000s
Nigerian composer, Stanley Okorie, is credited for several movie soundtracks of the 90s and early 2000s

Perhaps in a bid to compensate for the low-quality production, the soundtracks of the 90s prioritised vocal dexterity and storytelling, helping audiences better understand and relate to a movie’s plot. Karishika (1996) is arguably one of the most popular movies of the 90s, thanks to its soundtrack also created by Okorie. Those familiar with this 90s movie can attest to the chilling effect the soundtrack created upon hearing it. In this supernatural thriller, a demon (Karishika) is sent from hell to seek, tempt, and destroy people in order to increase hell’s population.  There’s a scene where Karishika arrives on Earth. The bouncy, repeated lyrics “Lucifer, Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, Karishika, Karishika, Queen of Demons” alongside the eerie tones create a sense of foreboding in the audience — one can sense that something bad is about to happen.

Nollywood, while still a growing industry, has come a long way from what it was in the 90s. The period from the late 2010s has been characterised by a boom in homegrown Nigerian sounds like Afrobeats, Afro-fusion, and other bold experimentations. Afrobeats has become a global phenomenon and it is no surprise that filmmakers now resort to using the latest Afrobeats hit songs as part of their movies’ soundtracks; “Wash” by Tekno and “On Top Your Matter” by Wizkid in The Wedding Party (2016), “No Wahala” by 1da Banton in Far From Home (2022). Lionheart (2018), popular for being Netflix’s first-ever acquisition of a Nigerian title had most of its soundtrack from popular Nigerian hit songs like “Bobo” by Olamide, “Omoge Mi” by P-Square and most notably “Obiagu” by Phyno (which loosely translates to lion heart). Phyno also performed the song in the movie as he was cast in it. 

But the infusion of Afrobeats in movies has failed to produce memorable soundtracks as there’s little to no attention to how the soundtrack embodies the movie’s plot. According to American film composer, Bernard Herrmann, “Music can propel narratives swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. It is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.” The diminishing artistry with Nollywood soundtracks is down to near complete abandonment of creating original soundtracks for movies. While there is no crime in using popular music in movies, the needs of the plot also have to be considered. Filmmakers should be deliberate about what they want the audience to feel in the moment, and consider questions as to whether the song distracts the audience from the dialogue. Does it meaningfully align with the character’s thoughts and actions at that moment?

This isn’t to say that the present Nollywood movies of this era are entirely void of original soundtracks.  Niyi Akinmolayan’s The House of Secrets (2023)  and Femi Adebayo’s Jagun Jagun (2023) come to mind in this regard. In The House of Secrets, we are introduced to Sarah’s traumatic past through the composer, Tolu Obanro-created soundtrack, “Guns, Trains and Flashes”. Singer, Peace Amaefula’s “Forever” is a statement of Sarah’s commitment to loving her husband Panam and despite her memory loss, she doesn’t forget him. Again, one word which sums up Gbotija’s life in Jagun Jagun is adventurous. The tempo of the drums in “Gbotija’s Journey” sets the mood for the adventure that is Gbotija’s training in the school of warriors.  

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Technology has played its part in the development and use of soundtracks in movies in this era. Better recording equipment has resulted in better sound quality and the infusion of sounds from other music genres. These are signs of a more developed industry than what was in the 90s and early 2000s. The commercialisation of soundtracks is thanks to the advent and increase in digital streaming platforms, so much so that filmmakers can now collaborate with established stars to create soundtrack albums which can be uploaded to digital music streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, such as been witnessed with Larry Gaaga’s work on the soundtrack album for Play Network’s Rattlesnake: The Ahanna Story (2020). 

Song writer and record producer, Larry Gaaga, created the soundtrack for Rattle Snake: The Ahanna Story
Songwriter and record producer, Larry Gaaga, created the soundtrack for Rattle Snake: The Ahanna Story

New Nollywood — as the industry is now called — is one of the biggest film industries in the world but there is more work to be done as it relates to soundtracks. While there are clear changes in the production quality of our sound, more effort can also be put into the artistic quality of soundtracks. Movies are a form of audiovisual media, therefore pictures and sound need to work in unison. 

Soundtracks in Nollywood have been a mirror reflecting the industry’s evolution. From the Western influences of the 90s to the modern infusion of Afrobeats, we’ve seen the industry grow from catering to the tastes of a local audience to commanding global appeal. As the industry grows, there is a need for a return to creating original soundtracks for movies, to further promote the unique content of stories.

Joseph Jonathan is a historian who seeks to understand how film shapes our cultural identity as a people. He believes that history is more about the future than the past. When he’s not writing about film, you can catch him listening to music or discussing politics.

Cover photo by Peter Palmer on Unsplash

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