One expects a Disney animated film to have great music. But when the setting is outside the United States, it’s especially crucial that the musical backdrop be true to the locale. Composer Germaine Franco does just that for “Encanto.”
Franco, who co-wrote most of the songs and orchestrated the score for Disney’s “Coco,” set in Mexico, has become Hollywood’s go-to composer for authentic Latin flavors. She was co-composer on “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” set in Peru; wrote additional music for the Dia de los Muertos musical “The Book of Life”; and scored the Starz series “Vida,” about Mexican-American sisters living in East L.A.
Originally from El Paso, her Mexican-American heritage and vast experience as a percussionist in Latin bands has served her well. She was the first Latina to be invited to join the Motion Picture Academy and the first to win an Annie for her work on “Coco.”
“Encanto” is set in Colombia, and although the songs are by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the score needed to “weave in and out of the songs, and tell the story of Mirabel [the central character] and her emotions,” she says, evoking a sense of “magical realism.”
It all began with the cumbia, Colombia’s national dance, which became a key element of the score. And while Franco could not visit the country because of the pandemic, she worked with Colombian musicians in L.A. and did extensive research into the colors of the region.
Traditional folk instruments played a big part in the score, Franco notes — not just accordion, the backbone of Colombian folk music, but also the tiple, a three-stringed guitar; the tambora bass drum; the gaita, a cactus-made flute; the arpa llerna, a harp; and the marimba de chonta, a percussion instrument specific to the region.
“Specific rhythms are applied to different characters,” Franco says, noting that the little boy Antonio is accompanied by Afro-Colombian rhythms.
Franco was inspired by a Hollywood Bowl performance by Carlos Vives, who performs Miranda’s “Colombia, Mi Encanto” in “Encanto.” The unique sound of Vives’ singers encouraged Franco to ask for a choral recording session… but not in L.A.
“The women of Colombia are also musicians and singers,” she explains. “They’re called cantadoras and they have this tradition, especially in the Afro-Colombian areas, where the women play percussion, chant and sing. I wanted that sound. So we did a session remotely in Colombia and they are singing [on the score].”
Miranda praises Franco’s work: “It was really important to me that we have a Latino music team for this movie. Our first meeting went really well and she just spoke so powerfully about the themes and instrumentation she wanted to use. The theme she found was so incredible. Particularly in the finale, there’s give and take between where my song ends and her score begins.”
Adds Franco: “The music and the storytelling are a huge fabric that works together. It’s such a joy because you get to be who you are. I spent a year on this score. I stopped all other projects, because I felt I needed to really focus and spend all my time on this.”