Behind the Music of 'Narcos,' Netflix's New Pablo Escobar Series

The series' score and song composers talk about how their work contributes to the story of the legendary drug lord.
Netflix

Netflix had already made big strides at appealing to global audiences in late 2014 with the lavishly budgeted Marco Polo. But its newest original series, Narcos, may prove to have an even greater appeal with the story of Colombia’s most notorious bad guy, Pablo Escobar.

Narrated by DEA agent Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook), it’s made for fans of Scorsese movies and chronicles Escobar’s journey from small-time smuggler to head of the Medellin cartel during the cocaine-fueled ‘80s. The fact that the streaming giant has ordered a second season only means more people are likely to discover it.

There’s a lot of creative power by way of Brazil on Narcos, which was shot on location in Colombia and boasts a well-rounded international cast. Director José Padilha (Elite Squad, Robocop) is an executive producer and directed the first two episodes, while fellow brasileiro Wagner Moura gets the challenging yet exhilarating task of bringing Pablo to life onscreen. A renowned actor who has worked with Padilha before, Moura imbues the character with enough complexity that you forgive the Brazilian accent.

Then there’s the music. Rio de Janeiro born and raised composer Pedro Bromfman created the hauntingly beautiful score for the series, and is on board to reprise his critical behind-the-scenes role in season 2. And Rodrigo Amarante, who recently released his debut solo album Cavalo, wrote and performed Narcos entrancing theme song, “Tuyo.” In a memorable scene from the first episode, we see Pablo in a bar, deep in a conversation with “Cockroach” about how well he thinks his product will sell in Miami. Suddenly, he hears a familiar tune and starts singing along to a few verses from “Tuyo.” The track, custom written for the series, debuted at No. 13 on Latin Digital Songs in the chart dated Sept. 19 and No. 6 on Latin Pop Digital Songs. It's Amarante’s first charting song, but we get the feeling it won’t be his last.

Billboard spoke to both Los Angeles-based creatives separately over the phone about how they contributed layers of color and intrigue to the story.

How did you get involved with the series?

Amarante: It was a happy coincidence. The director of the series, José Padilha, has a cousin who made a documentary that came out last year about my band [Little Joy]. He told me he saw the doc and got really intrigued about who I was. After listening to my music, he talked to Wagner [Moura, who plays Pablo Escobar], whom I’ve worked with before. I was the musical director for this big Brazilian production of Hamlet quite a few years ago that he starred in. And they both loved my music, and thought that I would do a good job at this.

Bromfman: José and I have done three movies together before Narcos. We’ve known each other for a long time. My first feature film was Elite Squad (directed by Padilha), and whatever he’s involved with I’m just happy to do. Narcos’ executive producer, Eric Newman, was also a producer on Robocop, which we’ve done together as well. And then Wagner [Moura] is an old friend, so it’s really a family that’s been doing things together for a while now.

There have been many interpretations of Pablo’s life on film and TV. How did you approach the music so that it felt original and authentic?

Amarante: It wouldn’t be as interesting, at least to me, to do a song that was straight out of that time period and that place specifically because the story itself should reflect universally. So my approach was to humanize Pablo by writing a song that seemed like a view from the inside of the character, rather than a view from the outside. I had this idea to write a song that was his mother’s favorite when he was a kid, something that would influence his idea of the man that he would like to be. I read a lot about Pablo and what his upbringing was. Apparently his mother was a big Carlos Gardel fan, as was everybody in Latin America during the ‘50s, but Gardel actually died in Medellin in a plane crash, which made his connection to the city a bit stronger. I didn’t want to make it a tango, but that was the route that I took. The way the lyrics are written and the way the production sounds is all about Pablo’s transition from childhood to manhood, which is what defines him. I wanted to deliver something romantic and deceivingly generous but if you listen to the lyrics you see that there’s a narcissistic point of view. All of those men were all children at one point, so in my head the song gives the viewer a bit of context, rather than just saying, "Oh, these guys are animals." I think there’s more to it.

Bromfman: Each person has their process, but I didn’t reference any existing movies or shows about Pablo Escobar — the same way an actor sometimes tries to stay away from an existing performance before diving into character. The idea was to use a lot of Colombian instruments. I play some of them because I grew up in South America, but others were new to me. It wasn’t about necessarily playing Colombian rhythms at all times but to create that flavor. At the same time there were spots where we needed cumbias and local rhythms so I went deep into that, but 80 percent of the score is a really suspenseful crime/action score using the flavor of those instruments. We brought all of those instruments into the studio, and I was exploring and playing with them, then I recorded them, and then we would bring them into the computer so I could make ambiances out of those organic sounds. They aren’t synthesized and I think the audience can somehow feel that.

What instruments did you end up using?

Bromfman: In South America, north of Argentina, they have the charango, and the ronroco, which is a deeper, bassier charango. I played a lot of those. We also used a lot of accordion and some harmonicas. I had this splash of inspiration from Sergio Leone westerns with Ennio Morricone scores. There are some other instruments that are completely foreign to Colombia. There’s one called the hang from Switzerland, which has this deep, haunting, metallic sound that I use in a few scenes. I always like to use the traditional instruments but I also bring in some foreign sounds. I played a lot of the flutes from Colombia and Peru, then I brought them into the computer and reversed them. It creates this ambience that you don’t really know came from a flute originally. It’s a modern, original kind of score.

How was your experience writing for a streaming series different than your other work?

Amarante: So this is the first time that I do something like this. I’ve worked in theater before but for film and TV, I’ve done very little and nothing of this magnitude. When I talked to my friends who do that stuff, they said, "Be ready for revisions." And I was ready, but I was also very sure of what I wanted and I knew where I was coming from. I made sure to talk to everyone in person and explain what I was going for. So when I presented the song they said, "Amazing, good job, done!" I felt that it paid to give it some thought and actually communicate with the creators. In film it’s very easy to be redundant. The show is about cocaine and gangsters, so I could easily write a song that’s heavy and nervous and Latin. But how would that expand the story? So I was very happy that they liked my approach. I’ve said this before, that the only reason to tell the story of a monster is to reveal the monsters that we ourselves have [within us]. Otherwise what is the point? Separating people between good and bad, classify them as angels and monsters? Life isn’t like that.

Bromfman: It was my first time working with them [Netflix.] I’ve never had such a smooth ride. I feel like they hire the creatives they want to work with, like Padilha, or [David] Fincher for House of Cards, and they give them a lot of creative freedom. They’re not as dependent on the success of the show. A lot of times a network series will shoot a pilot or a few episodes and then it will only go on if a lot of people tune into to watch it. Netflix approves a whole season before the first episode is even shot. The response to this has been amazing. We all thought we had gold in our hands but to be honest I didn’t really expect the response to be this amazing in the U.S., especially given that the show has a lot of subtitles. Pablo Escobar was such a monster but he’s such a fascinating character. He was a family man, he wanted to be president of Colombia and help the poor but at the same time he’s willing to take down a plane full of people to kill a presidential candidate. It’s such a dichotomy and the music reflects that.

What’s next for you?

Amarante: I don’t know how much I can say about the project, but because of Narcos, I’ve been asked to do a full feature film score and it’s a big production so I’m very excited. I’ve never done that before. I have been hired as an arranger before, but for records, including Gilberto Gil’s latest album. I’m starting to write my new record now, which I should be recording at the end of the year. A lot of people might think that “Tuyo” is my style, which it’s not really. But it doesn’t hurt, of course. I just hope that most of them will have a happy surprise [laughs].

Bromfman: I am onboard for the second season. We have a few ideas and I think everyone was very happy [with the score]. They brought me in before they even started shooting the first season. Some of the main scenes I wrote from the script way back when and sent it to them and they listened to it on set. Sometimes you start a project really early on and a lot of the stuff you do ends up having to go in a different direction once you see the images but with this one, it was right on the money from the first piece, which is the song that opens the show and follows him throughout. I’m really happy with the music.

This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.

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