Gustavo Santaolalla & Various | Babel | Concord Records 0888072301917 | TT130:35 | 36 tracks | 2006

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu completes a trilogy of intense drama that was launched by Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Babel is an elaborate multi-layered film starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal and continues the themes begun by the previous films, again beginning with a terrible accident that sparks off a story which weaves together different lives and locales. This film is perhaps the most ambitious yet, with the story centring on four families across three continents and told in five different languages.

Joining the director for this journey once again is composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who cut his scoring teeth on the first part of the cycle and who has since become one of the hottest and more unusual talents on the scene. His Oscar last year for Brokeback Mountain marked an early peak in a career that is still really in its adolescence, though his music is anything but.

Santaolalla’s approach to film scoring is slightly unorthodox in that he very often composes music before the film is finished, opting to base themes and ideas on the script or notion of the film. For Babel he did that and more, not only providing the director with material before the cameras rolled, but accompanying him on his worldwide shoot, for inspiration and a deeper connection to the film.

The soundtrack album for Babel is spread across two discs and is an eclectic listen, what the director regards as a ‘cultural orgy’. Santaolalla’s score is scattered amongst a variety of musical styles and songs, forming a musical journey that takes in the dusty, exoticism of North Africa, the diversity of the North Mexican borderlands and the obscure modernism of Tokyo. The experience is a musical assault on the senses, a real voyage of discovery for the listener as we encounter Norteña music from the Mexican border, courtesy of the groups Los Incomparables and Nortec Collective, Japanese pop/dance music from the likes of Takashi Fujii and abstract instrumentals by Susumu Yokota. Other highlights of the journey are the infectious rhythms of El Chapo de Sinaola (‘Para Que Regreses’) and Los Tucanes de Tijuana (‘Jugo A La Vida’), the earthy tones of Chavela Vargas and the soulful ‘Bibo no Aozora’ by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which appears on each disc, the second entry featuring additional virtuosic counterpoint by Jaques Morelenbaum and Yuichiro Gotoh.

Santaolalla’s music sits amongst this selection and quite comfortably so, as it too takes on the styles and spirit of each location. As usual the composer roots the majority of his music with guitars and other similarly stringed instruments. For Babel the composer bought himself an Oud, learned to play it and made it a strong presence in the score. The instrument has the ability to cross borders itself, at times sounding Latin, other times resembling a Koto – perfect for a score that traverses the borders between east and west. While a number of the cues fit into the Santaolalla sound-world we’ve grown accustomed to (‘Tazarine’, ‘Endless Flight’ and ‘The Phone Call’ for example), some of the cues exhibit a break in style for the composer, a break that can be attributed to his immersion in the cultures and countries he encountered on the shoot. ‘Two Worlds, One Heart’ sees the composer bring together Norteña and Moroccan styles of music, resulting in a quite enjoyable fusion of rhythmic clapping, rattling and ritualistic vocalisations. There is also a great tribal quality to some cues, most notably ‘The Skin of the Earth’, which is completely percussive, ‘Into The Wild’, ‘The Master’ and ‘Tribal’ which again features heavy percussion and indigenous vocals. ‘Prayer’ and ‘The Blinding Sun’ are unusual cues; the former actually appears to be a prayer, vocalised and given rhythm and a slight melody, while the latter is a strange percussive piece with fleeting samples of mariachi trumpet giving it a hazy and disorienting effect.

‘Deportation/Iguazu’ is perhaps a standout track on the album that begins with that sparse, naked guitar sound that Santaolalla does so well, cushioned by strings. It segues into ‘Iguazu’, which was written by the composer some time ago, for his 1998 solo album ‘Ronroco’, and was a source of much inspiration for the director when beginning his work on Babel. It’s a piece of music that has both an organic and otherworldly feel to it, the nimble, feather-light strumming of the ten-string Ronroco bringing about a feeling of quiet chaos and, strangely, peace. If you recognise it, it may because of its appearance in the soundtrack for Michael Mann’s The Insider.

Usually a ‘Music from an Inspired By…’ album means a whole bunch of songs that have little connection to the film represented, lumped together to make a few bucks. This double-album for Babel, however, brings together songs and music that were integral to the creation of a director’s vision, and they work together to create a soundtrack that isn’t just for a film, but a very real world, full of divisions and longing for compassion.