Making the Music of Zorro…and about that guy who plays charango at the Farragut Metro

The soundtrack of Zorro is rich with original music, composed by Mariano Vales with guitarist and sound designer Behzad Habibzai. Vales and Habibzai met last winter working on Constellation’s Blood Wedding, and this is now their fourth collaboration. We got a chance to talk to them about their work together.

Please tell us a little bit about both of your backgrounds

Behzad – I am a flamenco guitarist, drummer/percussionist working in the DC area. I worked as a professional musician in New England since my early teens until I moved to DC where I focused on flamenco. Though, I do consider myself musically well-traveled. I’ve done punk rock, musical theater, orchestral, jazz, Indian, psychobilly, you name it. Whatever musical project I find myself in, I’m sure to have a bag of tricks.

Behzad Habibzai plays live on stage during Blood Wedding

Behzad Habibzai plays live on stage during Blood Wedding

Mariano – I am a composer and orchestra/choir conductor born in Buenos Aires Argentina, educated in Argentina and the US. I always loved the theater and started writing for it since very early in my career. I’ve also written several musicals while still living in Argentina in the 90’s, and one recently here in the US for the Gala Theater (Off the record, yesterday I proposed Allison and AJ to have an original musical here at Constellation, I think it may happen…)

You met creating music for Constellation’s Blood Wedding (January 2012)  and have since been collaborating. What other kind of projects have you been working on?

Behzad – I’m very fortunate to have connected with Mariano during Blood Wedding, thanks to Constellation and the amazing Allison Stockman. Mariano and I hit it off. After the close of that play, we got working on The Bacchae with WSC Avant Bard which played during the summer, and then El Desden Con el Desden with Gala Hispanic Theatre. I’ve basically been consistently working with Mariano since December of 2011. So that’s 4 plays in just over a year.

Mariano – Like Behzad said, we owe our happy partnership to Allison and Constellation, hopefully we will find more projects to work together on.

For Zorro, how did you approach creating the new score? What were your influences?

Behzad – The following is based on what I encountered during the development of the music, as I can’t speak on behalf of the ultimate composer, Mariano.

There were many discussions and meetings on the direction of the music and the appropriateness of the pulp. We were initially listening to archive stuff of folk songs that originated during the Gold Rush. We wanted a more modern or nondenominational tinge – something you can’t immediately put your finger on. We discussed Hans Zimmer’s score to Sherlock Holmes, the theme music to Deadwood, and the epic western scores of Ennio Morricone. There was also a slight touch of flamenco with our “fight” music.

mariano.biopic

Mariano Vales

After hearing Deadwood and the hammer dulcimer in Sherlock Holmes, we realized that we needed an instrument to provide an ostinato that would really flavor everything – just totally galvanizing all of these ideas. We decided to go with a charango as an accompanying instrument. The charango is a coursed ukulele-like Peruvian instrument made from the shell of an armadillo. There is this guy who plays outside metro stations every morning around McPherson and Farrugut. You could say he was the source of inspiration for all of this, and he has no idea!

I having been speaking of the discussions we’ve been having, but really it was all up to how Mariano’s mind would perceive and interpret those things, and what he would produce. So, you may be sitting in the audience thinking that this sounds nothing like any of those things I mentioned or maybe it sounds exactly like all or some of those. The journey and the destination are two different things. And with that in mind, I know Mariano was able to take all of those influences and beautifully mold them into something original and –dare I say – nondenominational.

Mariano – There where several influences. I wanted a score with a ‘pulpy’ soul that reflected the dual Spanish-western background of the main character.  I looked into Enio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores, and I set myself the challenge to write something on that vein, with a touch of flamenco, that also incorporated some sounds used in modern westerns like Deadwood (whose score I personally like very much), especially Santaolalla’s use of the charango in Iguazú. It wasn’t the guy in the metro! (Shhh Behzad… I don’t want to have to share our juicy royalties with him) .

I certainly do have to credit Behzad, who composed the palmas music for the fight scenes, and David Garza, who wrote ‘Compassion,’ the song we use as Tavern music, beautifully interpreted by Carlos Saldaña, our amazing Sergeant Gonzalez.

How closely did you work with Director Eleanor Holdridge?

Behzad – We worked very close and had a discussion about pretty much every second of music that you will hear with several versions of each song meticulously critiqued. I even walked away with a bruise on my arm. 

Mariano – I am sure you deserved it. Yes, we’ve been working very close to Eleanor. Not only because working with her has been inspiring and fun (she is a very candid and smart artist), but also because from the very beginning she could convey an extremely clear vision of the play. She has been always specific on the play’s needs, and her vision influenced considerably how the score ultimately sounds. Although at the beginning I would protest when for e.g. she wanted to cut out music that to her (and maybe to everyone else…) resembled ‘Who wants to be a millionaire,’ I finally decided to trust her judgment (Yeah…maybe it sounded a bit out of place for that moment… )

Is the score primarily guitar, or is there other instrumentation?

The acoustic instruments include a flamenco guitar, a charango, a cajon (box drum), a tambourine, and three clappers – all of which were recorded by me. All of the others are virtual orchestral instruments.

Mariano – Yeap, just like Behzad said.

Tell us a bit about the recording process.

Behzad – As mentioned, the whole band is me. So I knew that I was going to have to record guitar, charango, cajon, tambourine, and clapping. Some little vignettes of two guitars in a duet? Me as well. The charango was interesting, because I’m not a charango player. I had to learn the music and learn how to play the instrument on the spot at the studio.

As for the orchestra, those are all MIDI. The role required me to utilize my knowledge of orchestration to communicate with Mariano. For example, he’ll say, “we need the attack of the brass to be stronger, so just have the parts doubled by another set of brass doing a staccato articulation.”

Mariano – Yeah… that part got cut anyway…(love, Eleanor!). Basically I would write a symphony score with using a writing software, pass the info to Behzad (horribly sounding electronic midi sounds), and he would skillfully transform it in real music at the studio. I have to disagree with Behzad in one thing only; the greatest recording contribution wasn’t his. It was me singing Zorroooooo! for the main score.

Thanks you guys. We’re excited for all the beautiful music you are making together!

Listen to a clip

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