BLACK GOLD: POETS OF THE DESERT
A voice rises, ending a long silence endured since The Karate Kid. This chant is performed by Qatar pop star Fahad Al-Kubaisi and it leads us straight away towards the Middle East and sounds like Adhan, the call to prayer in Muslim countries. Between the successive phrasings of that song, an echo restraints the silence and creates a feeling of space, as if the voice was swept along by the wind across the desert.
A landscape of desolation is shown to us. Over four minutes, James Horner uses low strings and a low piano to maintain a subdued and latent tension. A solo of tuba, representing the dialogue between the two Emirs, expresses the very issue of the moment. The future of the two boys is sealed while an oboe hopelessly repeats the main theme. Then a plaintive horn comes with sad news. A few days later, Nesib indeed announces to Saleeh and Auda that their mother died of a broken heart. The horn ends with a four-note motif, a symbol of a bitter destiny. The tension finally falls, giving way to a splendid flute solo – like a largo in a Shostakovich symphony – echoing a childhood forever lost.
The theme, played by both an oboe and a harp, opens the cue, punctuated by a low C note. Then a clarinet takes over before the cellos repeat the theme alone. With the fullness of their playing the strings give roundness and lightness to the theme, like a waving music that follows the curves of sand dunes. The piano embellishes this with softness reminding Auda's pleasant childhood with Nesib's daughter, Leyla. Like her, the music is elegant and beautiful.
Slightly reminiscent of the enthusiastic music of the '80s, this cue ironically and humorously portrays Nesib's unselfish investments (schools, hospitals, libraries…). We have there an impish and mocking James Horner, who parodies this exhilaration of money sought by the Emir to the detriment of the pact he made twelve years before. The opening trumpet note, too high, perfectly typifies the character's impulsiveness. Opulence is totally caricatured through an impulsive, vivacious and light orchestration. In addition to this euphoric state, there is a feeling of farce and grotesque, provoked by muted horns and a prominent tuba. A mischievous Grinch and a Balto, a bit crazy, are not far off.
This track marks the beginning of a romance between princess Leyla and prince Auda. The latter is first suspicious and skeptical towards Leyla's intentions. She declares an undying love she has got deep in her since her youngest age, and Auda progressively realizes that the young girl's feelings are true. The composer, on the piano, with soft, high and sparse chords, delicately and slowly unveils the main theme, based on the motif performed by the horns at the beginning of the album. This reserved introspection, typical with James Horner, shows the birth of love between the two characters. The discreet romance is confirmed by a secondary theme played by a horn, very slow and legato, leading to a variation of the main theme, which is used as conclusion with its descending orchestration.
This short piece is a turning point in the album. Ethnic instruments and percussion appear for the first time and that alludes to the first signs of the conflict for black gold and to the first victim of it, Saleeh who went to rejoin his father Amar after Nesib broke the treaty. Saleeh is killed for treason. This murder is musically translated by a worrying and ominous turmoil. Then the tension progressively fades to make way to a bitter lament, where Dhafer Youssef's voice heralds the forthcoming bereavement and the somber consequences of such a tragic event.
Barely recovering from the loss of this brother, Auda is summoned by Nesib to leave Hobeika and the princess, in order to negotiate peace with his father Amar. The music underlines the young prince’s state of mind. It starts with a sense of alarm, then continues with a slight interrogation, which turns into resignation. The departure and the separation are inevitable. This cue gives a very impassioned version of the theme, first in a dramatic mode, then in an overwhelming romanticism. Horns, bassoons and clarinets follow this dazzling lyricism, so as to evoke the reminiscence of the first moments of isolation that the couple once had.
A return to his roots for the young prince Auda. He goes back to his father and step-brother Ali, a doctor who does not believe in Allah and who advocates the benefits of the western society. This small piece is very refreshing. Dhafer Youssef’s soft and soothing voice discretely accompanies a harp, a piano, a cello and light percussion. This track does not echo any other thematic line of the score; it is unique, for it is sober, clear, emotional and melancholic. On a quiet and out of time rhythm, James Horner discretely and authentically underlines a filial relationship renewed after twelve years of separation.
Auda decides to rally Amar’s cause, his genuine father, and to follow his strategy to attack the oil drilling. He shall have to make believe he is Amar and then get the attention of Nesib’s troupes. However, he does not know where this choice shall lead him to; to his death, to the loss of his honor, to Leyla’s falling out? Like a representation of his doubt, a hesitating piano does not know if it must go up or down. It is caught between two voices, that might be those of the reason, the pros and cons: one voice, very high, seems to struggle and to implore help, the other one, in total contradiction, is calmer but fatalistic. The latter finally prevails and the moral fight gives way to relief and to light.
Auda has just been confronted to his very first combat in the desert. Dhafer Youssef’s incredible voice accompanies the piano, which performs a wistful melody, the one that hesitated in the previous track and that now reveals remorse. Here the feeling of loss is evoked. The loss of life because of all the dead along the trip, the loss of innocence, as the experience of war will forever alter his perception of the world, and also and anticipated possible loss of his princess’s love. 'So This Is War' and the two previous cues form an intimist trio, which encourages to meditation.
Crossing the desert is getting exhausting for Auda and his army. Bodies weaken and collapse under the suffocating heat of the desert. Such heat, amplified by a blinding light, provokes an oppressive head-spinning sensation. Thus, the duet piano/flute in the high notes at the beginning of the cue marks a malaise at an early stage, a deadly dizziness.
These few running notes are like the last reserves of evaporating water. Nothing can hold them, especially when intense violin tremolos and rolling cymbals, like burning sand moved by a torrid wind, emphasize this feeling of aridity. The syncope will not be slow in coming, and an incandescent voice superimposes itself over such hell. The orchestra acts out the exhaustion, the collapse and the loss of vital energy.
Nothing can be done. Any resistance is futile and the thirsty theme disintegrates. The stunning is general and the sun continues its burning action. James Horner uses his orchestration to go beyond the musical accompaniment. He imitates the environment with sounds; he produces real sensations, while giving us the impression of suffering from the scorching sun and sand-charged winds. James Horner’s previous occasion to excel at such situational exercise was to give us seasickness on a boat in the middle of a storm.
One by one, the completely dehydrated men lie on the beach, waiting for a certain death. The melancholic piano seconds Dhafer Youssef’s plaintive and dried up voice. The singer even seems to do a gasp (3:36), a characteristic of the physical suffering caused by the lack of water.
In a fateful silence gradually settling on the shore, a slight noise prevents the spirits to quietly die… This is a spring of fresh water hidden in the sea. The contrast with the previous piece is stark. The strings agitate and are awakened; the theme is re-hydrated by the piano, the bells and the chimes shower us with joy. Cheerful and exhaltated violins set up euphoria as big as the feeling of relief. At this very moment, the value of a sip of fresh water is greater than any barrel of oil in the world.
On the road to Hobeika, Auda is taken for his father and shot in the head by a sniper. This dramatic passage is musically described with alert and anguish. After two drum hits, James Horner unleashes his strings while restricting their speed. Their phrases are in opposite counterpoint, from the high notes to gradually blend into tho lower ones until they softly vanish. They predict a probable fateful death.
However, after a brief silence, the strings revive and start parts of the main theme in the low notes. Their impulse helps the music rise and get steady until full recovery from the recent emotions with a vibrant theme (1:41). Auda is not dead!
The main theme, performed with a quartet of strings, fades little by little over more than two minutes, as life is leaving Ali’s body. Auda has his step-brother reconciled to Allah, so as he can face death in serenity. James Horner scores this moving sequence with the restraint and decency that characterize such work so well. The transition between life and death is depicted by several repetitions of the theme, which inexorably descends through various orchestrations and through more and more cold and light sounds.
Amar’s strategy worked. He could join the highly coveted Yellow Belt by stealth, thanks to the diversion of Auda’s army. But Amar is killed just before invading the oil rig (in the film, it is a short version of the beginning of One Brother Lives, One Brother Dies, which is used for the death of Amar). This is now the time for his son to take power and to send a horde of hundred horses to Nesib’s derricks. This flurry is demonstrated in an intense action cue.
It first starts with horns and woodwinds softly bitter and fateful. Action is launched even before it can be heard. Encouraging strings mark the leaving to war. The main theme is fleetingly suggested by a bitter, plaintive and somewhat petrified violin. Then a determined cadenza begins, staccato, the troops are moving forward and the cue takes consistency and power, boosted by the rumbling sound of the trombones and tuba. The war march is getting epic as a theme is introduced by horns, with a contrechant by optimistic, united and almost impassionate strings.
Again, momentum is lost and on a slower tempo, the main theme is tranposed into an epic heroic march (2:39). Then the strings spread in their chords, bringing confusion and chaos, and disintegrate until light comes back. The first notes of the main theme are successively played by a flute, an oboe and a horn ends this passage of bravery. At 4:09 the secondary theme heard in 'I Have Chosen You' sounds the resolution of the conflict, the relief after the battle and the soon reunion with princess Leyla.
Prince Auda has now conquered the city and its inhabitants, promising them long-lasting peace. As he does not want to offend Leyla, he allows Nesib to live, provided he moves to Texas to advocate their interests. The war to the black gold and its casualties could not eventually end its attraction power. So ends the film, on a vast scenery of wells, picturing the intensive exploitation of the Yellow Belt.
A long cue concludes the album, with reprises of the main theme in its every majestic colors, with multiple variations richly and finely orchestrated, of which a particularly interesting brass dissonance (4:23). Reminiscences of the intimate and wistful passages of the score end this cue; a way of reminding us of the human losses and the suffering upon which this kingdom of oil was built. The last word is given to Dhafer Youssef, the lyric poet of this symphonic work.