#BehindTheMusic | Inside Netflix’s Mzansi Series Miseducation Soundtrack

In the vibrant world of South African television, a fresh and captivating series has emerged, and its name is “Miseducation“. This youthful comedy-drama takes us on a journey into the tumultuous life of Mbali Hadebe, a first-year university student determined to reclaim her former glory as the reigning queen bee. After a dramatic fall from grace at her elite private school, Mbali sets her sights on conquering the social hierarchy of a small-town university, where she aspires to once again be the standout, popular girl she once was. Alongside her eclectic group of friends, she faces the challenges of young adulthood while searching for her true identity and the image she wishes to project.

One of the brilliant minds behind the enchanting soundscape that accompanies Mbali’s quest for social supremacy is Samkelo Mahlalela. A seasoned composer hailing from Pixelwave Audio, Samkelo brings a wealth of experience to the table, having spent over a decade in the sound industry. His journey began as a stagehand on TV shows and eventually led him to the hallowed studios of Braamfontain Werf, where he honed his skills as an Audio Engineer. It was here that he received his first opportunity to craft music for corporate clients and productions, setting the stage for his remarkable involvement in Miseducation.

Join us as we chat with Samkelo to uncover the mesmerizing world of music composition in the making of this extraordinary South African series.

To kick things off, tell us what Miseducation is all about?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: Miseducation is a comedy-drama…Satirical in nature. It explores the local political landscape using a modern-day university Makhanda as the backdrop for the story to take place in. The B stories then explore challenges faced by today’s youth, tertiary students. Everything from high fees, social acceptance, and sexual identity to the colonial landmarks.

Before we dive into the music, can you introduce us to the music score team for the series?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: The team really comprised of the editors, producers, me (Samukelo Mahlalela), and artist collaborations.

How did you as a team align on the vision for Miseducation’s musical direction? Were there specific musical genres you wanted to incorporate to enhance the storytelling?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: The overall direction for the show was supplied by the Producers at Burnt Onion. That direction informed both the commercial song selection and the composed/original music. We had to make sure that the overall sound of the show was upbeat and reflected the popular music genres of young South Africans. With this information, we were able to choose the appropriate instrument sounds that would compliment the scenes in the show as well as the selected commercial tracks. This way the show has a more rounded seamless aural identity.

How has the team’s previous work and experiences influenced their approach to composing for this series?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: We’ve been fortunate as PixelWave Audio to have worked alongside Burnt Onion Productions on How To Ruin Christmas. This helped us to get familiar with how Burnt Onion likes to treat music in their productions. In this, we mean that they are open to and like to have original music/score that reflects elements of the commercial music on the show. As a scoring technique, we mimic instrumentation and style from secular music and then use it to develop an original score. This results in a score that sounds more local but has the ability to switch easily from a more traditional film music style to a commercially placed track.

Were there any particular challenges or unique aspects of the series that required a specialized musical touch, and how did the music scorer address them?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: It was a challenge to develop a score that has the same energy as a commercial South African song. The instruments and sounds used in typical scores can’t really translate that sense of energy to picture the way our local music can. As a way to address this, we incorporated elements of our local music into the score that we created for the show. For example, there are quite a few instances on the show where the Log drum (traditionally an Amapiano sound) is used as a main element of some of the scored pieces in the show.

In terms of the creative process, can you describe how the music scorer collaborated with the production team to craft the series’ musical identity?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: Once the sound of the show had been agreed on, the production team would spend time in the studio with the composer (Samukelo) to review each episode minute by minute as it was completed. Here we’d review in real time how the music complimented each episode and overall storyline. This allowed us to identify any interesting motifs/music pieces that worked well and had the potential to be repurposed in other episodes thus forming themes that would tie character development and stories together. In other instances, we’d use lyrics in original pieces to give the viewer more insight into a character’s feelings or an overarching story/message.

Were there any memorable moments during the scoring process where the music scorer’s contributions truly elevated a scene or storyline in unexpected ways?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: In episode 4 the music breaks away from the secular upbeat style that the viewer is used to up until that point. At the end of the episode, Mbali does something that changes the direction of the show. The music at this point really drives her actions and communicates the scale of what she’s about to do. The music is grand and typical of large action blockbuster films. This helps drive the viewer to the point of peaking anticipation and leaves them anxious about what might happen from here. This is really well communicated in the music and together the visual and aural aspects of the show work well together to achieve this effect.

How does the music scorer’s work reflect the emotional depth and character development within the series? Were there specific character themes or musical cues created to enhance these elements?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: One of the most identifiable music themes is centered around Mbali. She has a unique motif that plays each time she has one of her crazy ideas. It’s a blend of traditional music scores and musical instruments/sounds that are borrowed from secular music. It’s almost a jazzy upbeat piece with a hint of 808 bass. It’s effective in that at any point when it comes on viewers immediately realize that Mbali is about to blurt out another one of her ambitious plans. It almost makes the viewer feel like they “know” Mbali, with how the music cue immediately tells them what she’s about to do next. Mabli also has a more sombre piece in episode one that comes up again in episode 6. How the same piece of music develops between the two scenes helps to drive the fact that although things have changed a little bit Mbali still goes through the same struggles with the relationship she has with her mom.

What do you believe viewers will take away from the music in the series? How does it contribute to their overall experience and connection with the storyline?

[SAMUKELO MAHLALELA]: We feel the original/scored music helps to give the show a unique aural identity that feels intentionally matched with the world portrayed in the show. It gives a believable baseline for the story to take place that doesn’t take away from the overall emersion of the show. The story unfolds with commercial music coming in and out and everything still sounds like it belongs.

List of artists featured in the series include:

Luzuko Mbanyana – Audio Engineer, Producer, Rapper

Nqobile Mkhatshwa – Poet from Eswatini

Dibi – Rapper

Bizzcuit – Rapper from the East Rand

Ozzy Motlakase – Rapper from Mabopane

Thabo Tserema – Singer from Soweto, Finalist in Clash of Choirs

Ms Greene – Singer and former contestant in Clash of Choirs

Major Steez – Commercial rap duo from Johannesburg

Watch “Miseducation” and see how the score Samkelo broke down for us translates in the series!

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