Musician Christopher Hedge Composes for Groundbreaking PBS Series
The rim of a car wheel hangs from a tree in Children’s Town in Zambia where it is rung like a school bell every day. Something pops in a fire during a ceremony of the original firewalkers on Beqa Island. A boy, just freed from slavery in India, says his name proudly. These are some of the sounds on The New Heroes, a recording by Christopher Hedge inspired by a four-part PBS documentary with the same name. The series, hosted by Robert Redford, airs June 28 and July 5, 2005. Triloka Records will release the CD on June 14, 2005.
The four-hour TV series travels the globe to explore the ideas and impact of “social entrepreneurs” who measure their bottom line in lives. In India, Kailash Satyarthi rescues brutally enslaved children in daring raids and promotes a radical vision to end forced child labor. In Kenya, Martin Fisher and Nick Moon introduced a low-cost, manual water pump that doubles the yield of a small farm. In Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus founded a bank that has loaned billions of dollars to millions of poor families, all without any collateral. In Egypt, Dina Abdel Wahab has broken through cultural taboos to create quality schools for children with disabilities. Hedge was charged with creating the series soundtrack, but knew from the start, he wanted the CD to stand as a recording in its own right.
Most people would think it is backwards to put microphones in your ears, but that is just what Christopher Hedge does. He travels around the world wearing special binaural microphones to record moments in time so they sound just the way he is hearing them. This emphasis on listening is exactly why New Heroes producers Michael Malone and Robert Grove didn’t consider anyone else to compose the soundtrack.
“As musicians, we learn to play notes and instruments to express ourselves,” explains Hedge. “But I feel that experiences, moments in time, are powerful instruments in themselves. Instruments that could never be created out of wood and strings.”
Hedge’s approach to creating the soundtrack to The New Heroes—and any music that he crafts—is a challenge to capture on paper. The series producers outlined the stories and characters that would be revealed in the documentary, and Hedge sketched out some compositions that he sent to each of the directors as they went into the field to shoot their segment of the series, just to give them of an idea of what he was looking for. He asked the directors to keep their ears and mics open for audio snapshots that represented the experiences and moments they were capturing on video.
“People call them samples,” says Hedge. “People started discovering audio sampling and thought it was convenient and cool sounding. But that does not have much to do with what the sounds actually are, where they come from, what they mean. Like the boy calling his name on ”The Voices” (see QuickTime music video). The sound of that boy yelling is the sound of a human being claiming his independence for the first time after a life of bondage. That is one hundred percent real, whether you know the story or not.”
But Hedge and the other musicians do know the stories. Hedge brought in musicians like flutist Paul Horn who has traveled the world and recorded in such profound locations as the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids of Egypt; Titos Sompa, a percussionist and kalimba (thumb piano) player from the Congo (Brazzaville); violinist Julian Smedley, Hedge’s musical collaborator for many years; Alam Khan, sarod player and son of Ali Akbar Khan; and tabla-player Debopriyo Sarkar, from Kolkata who has been performing classical Indian music around the world. The first thing he had the musicians do was watch segments of the series. And throughout the recording of the soundtrack, they watched the video, interacting with the story line, while they improvised and interpreted the feelings and moments on their instruments.
“In the fourth hour of the series featuring Sompop Jantraka, who has started a school for young Thai girls to save them from prostitution,’ there’s a little girl talking; it sounds like she’s crying. The girl is explaining that her parents sold her and she doesn’t know where they are. She says she doesn’t mean to cry all the time, but the tears just keep falling. Another young girl is standing among four or five border guards in Thailand. When Julian plays his violin, he’s watching this girl, probably about 11 years old, standing there in her school uniform. Her eyes are darting back and forth. And Julian plays this very innocent line, over this piece with a dark underlying feeling. It perfectly expresses this portrait of fear and innocence.”
At the same time, Hedge drew upon two decades of his recordings from his studio and around the world. “What’s really important to me is that these sounds and performances mean something, something happened at that moment, it doesn’t matter where or when,” says Hedge. “If I were composing traditionally, I would try to ‘make’ emotions with a structure of notes and instruments. That’s valid, but, I’ve become more interested in the music I can’t imagine, moments that I don’t control. A few years ago Titos and I were playing kalimba at my home, and that just felt like a part of the same thing as these kids walking with their teacher (from ‘Children’s Town’ in Zambia). If Paul played a particular phrase on his flute when we were in Nepal, I can go and find it. There is some kind of logging process that goes on in my head. These times happened, they’re still happening. All those things we said, that we believed. All those moments are never wasted.”
While the documentary’s soundtrack is intertwined with the film’s story line, the CD stands on its own with a separate tempo and order from the film. When you hear the sarod on “India Suite,” it references the urgent despair of the world with a tinge of hopefulness. The kalimba, rooster calls, and classroom recordings on “A Common Song – Children’s Town” put you in mind of the plight of children, without needing to know the story line.
Listening to the real message. Finding connections. New Heroes, the CD, is the perfect musical representation to New Heroes, the documentary. Discovering new meaning about ourselves in light of other’s profound experiences.
"It's not about us,” concludes Hedge. “These notes, this music, these sounds, they're not about me or Paul or Titos or any of the musicians or PBS or Robert Redford. If you knew anything about Mimi Silbert at Delancy Street, Kailash Satyarthi, David Green, Muhammad Yunus, any of them, we're just a speck, the smallest part. They are the giants... and each of them would tell you that they are nothing compared to the people they see every day. If you get just a hint of who they are and what they're doing, it will change your life. These are the New Heroes, the real Heroes."
The New Heroes:
The New Heroes is a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting in association with Malone-Grove Productions, Inc.
The New Heroes companion Web site at www.pbs.org/thenewheroes is a wonderful resource for additional information on the social entrepreneurs featured in the series. Or visit www.thenewheroes.org to find out how you can make a direct contribution to one or more of these projects.
Kailash Satyarthi –Global March Against Child Labor
Moses Zulu – Zambia Children’s Town
Mimi Silbert – The Delancy Street Foundation
Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy – Aravind Eye Hospitals
David Green – Aurolab
Martin Fisher and Nick Moon – ApproTEC
Fabio Rosa – Institute for Development of Natural Energy and Sustainability
Muhammad Yunus – The Grameen Bank
Maria Tete Leal – Coopa-Roca
Albina Ruiz Rios – Alternativa
Inderjit Khurana – Ruchika Social Service Organization D
Dina Abdel Wahab – The Baby Academy
Sompop Jantraka – Daughters Education Program
“These are the people that wrote this music. They never take credit for themselves, they don't have time and it's not the point. They are why we are sending proceeds to their foundations. This is why we want everyone to hear it and see the series.” – Christopher Hedge