Home > Reviews > NOWHERE IN AFRICA – Niki Reiser


nowhereinafricaOriginal Review by Peter Simons

Nowhere In Africa (or, in its native German, “Nirgendwo In Afrika”) tells the tragic story of a Jewish family that moves from Germany to Kenya just before WWII in 1938. There, in Africa, they start a farm, but not all members of the family can get used to their new lives. However, the war in Europe makes it impossible for them to return back home. So, all anyone can do is try and make the best out of things. The film was written and directed by Caroline Link, who based her screenplay on the book by Stefanie Zweig. Quite surprisingly, this German film nabbed the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s ceremony. This is the third time Swiss composer Niki Reiser composed a score for director Link. They previously worked together on Jenseits Der Stille (Beyond The Silence, 1996) and Pünktchen Und Anton (Annaluise & Anton, 1999). The soundtrack for Nowhere In Africa is a lovely combination of European and African music. There are bittersweet string chords that could have sprung from the minds of James Horner or Rachel Portman, a theme for oboe that’s quite reminiscent of the theme from The English Patient and there’s quite a bit of mellow African percussion and chanting. There are, unfortunately, a few things working against this score, but ultimately the music is just too darn nice to be really upset by its shortcomings.

The album opens with ‘Loreley’ which features an oboe theme, similar to Gabriel Yared’s The English Patient, accompanied by a see-sawing string motif. The second track, ‘Daddy is Back’, combines African chants and percussion with a, by itself, nice string motif, that unfortunately reminds me of a commercial for casino’s. The third track contains another oboe theme that’s reminiscent of Mark Mancina’s Twister. And why stop here? The fourth track is a beautiful string adagio, though it does sound very much like it could have been penned by Hans Zimmer in a melodramatic mode.

Despite its many similarities to other scores (whether on purpose or by accident, only Reiser can tell for sure) Nowhere In Africa really is a wonderful little score. A personal favorite is ‘Africa – Europe’, which combines some mellow African chants and handclaps with a hauntingly beautiful, yet simple, string melody not unlike anything Horner or Portman would do. And me being a fan of Horner, this track really gets to me. Another fabulous track is ‘Goodbye from Regina’, which presents us with a mix of warm string chords, African percussion and female vocals. It’s a subtle track that would have Hans Zimmer salivating. The film’s title track ‘Nowhere In Africa’ is as epic as this score gets. A relatively big sweeping theme for strings is accompanied by some exotic rhythms.

The score has some definite con’s, the many similarities to other scores being one and the too short playing time of the cues being another, but luckily (though I tend to say: miraculously) they are outweighed by the pro’s. Still, let’s focus on some flaws for a second, because the two major flaws actually seem to contradict each other. On one hand the score is quite repetitive and yet, on the other hand, it also feels awkwardly disjointed due to too many different musical themes and motifs. Reiser presents us with a couple of very distinct ideas. An oboe-theme that draws just a bit too much attention to itself because of its similarity to The English Patient, a string motif that sounds exactly like strings tuning up before a concert performance and a melody for a female vocal so soft it’s on the brink of whispering. These are just three of many examples of some very distinct ideas that in terms of melody and orchestration have absolutely nothing in common, which causes the aforementioned disjointed feeling.

Yet, Reiser repeats these very distinctive motifs several times throughout the score with little or no variation at all. And since these motifs are so peculiar, their repetition is instantly noticed. Never does Reiser expand upon these motifs and never does he put them together in a single track. The album as a whole therefor seems to be gently adrift on a river, softly floating onwards on a stream of genuinely nice ideas, though not really going anywhere and thus lacking a destination or satisfying climax. The dull ‘Grasshoppers’ cue as the closing track is actually a very dissatisfying ending.

Then again, isn’t it said that the journey itself is more rewarding than its destination? Or as Philip Glass says, beauty lies in the here and now, not in the relation between the present and the past or future. Not that I actually agree with that, though. Still, the same applies to Reiser’s Nowhere In Africa. The beauty lies in every single track, not in the relation between one cue and another. The score is a bittersweet roundtrip through Europe and Africa taking us right back to where we started, seemingly not having gone anywhere in particular, yet we come home richer with all the beautiful things we’ve seen and heard.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Loreley (1:22)
  • Daddy Is Back! (0:56)
  • Nowhere In Africa (3:39)
  • End of War (2:41)
  • Journey Through Kenya (5:30)
  • Africa – Europe (2:50)
  • Regina’s Melody (1:01)
  • Hansel and Gretel In Africa (0:50)
  • Goodbye From Regina (4:47)
  • Jettel’s Melody (2:44)
  • Toto (0:49)
  • Ritual (2:05)
  • Nowhere In Africa II (4:30)
  • Poland Means Death (4:17)
  • My Brave Angel (1:07)
  • Closing Frame (1:55)
  • Visiting The Camp (1:25)
  • Reichskristalnacht (3:37)
  • Love Scene (1:38)
  • Reunion (0:59)
  • Celebration of the Pokot/Home Country (5:17)
  • Grasshoppers (2:48)

Running Time: 56 minutes 62 seconds

Virgin Schallplatten 7243 54350221 CDVIR 202 (2002)

Music composed by Niki Reiser. Conducted by Rainer Bartesch. Performed by The Basel Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Niki Reiser. Additional music by Jochem Schmidt-Hambrock. Featured musical soloists Magatte Ndiaye, Luzi Schilling, Andi Pupato, Jael Bertschinger, Pedro Pedroso and Andreas von Wangenheim. Special vocal performances by Sandra Vontobel. Recorded and mixed by Thomas Strebel, Hannes Dürrschnabel, Oliver Loew and Felix Hohl. Album produced by Niki Reiser.

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