We all know the song, it’s called Ancient Voices and for 17 years, it has been the song associated with Survivor. It is easily the most iconic theme song of any reality show and possibly one of the most memorable theme songs in television history. People who don’t even watch Survivor anymore could hear it and be reminded of the show because it is tightly associated with it.
I’ve spoken about the song before. No other television theme has so quickly spoken to me in a sense that it felt so different. I remember sitting down for the first episode of Survivor as a 10 year old kid, hearing Ancient Voices for the first time and immediately knowing that I was in for an hour of enthralling television. I hadn’t heard anything that sounded like it before. It was perfect for a show that was so different to anything any of us had ever seen. Ancient Voices is as much a part of Survivor lore as Jeff Probst, tribes or Richard Hatch and always will be.
The song was composed by Russ Landau who got the gig by being best friends with the show’s creator, Mark Burnett. Originally, Burnett wanted a big Hollywood type theme that we would now associate with a Michael Bay movie. They tried out multiple versions of Landau compositions but none of them were sticking so Landau decided to try something a little different and went back to something from much earlier in his career,
I was a bass player for The Paul Winter Consort for 10 years, and I became his record producer. We were doing his Earthbeat album — and I wasn’t a full-on producer for that album, but I was starting to take on some of the recording duties — and the Earthbeat album had all this ancient Russian folk music. One of the songs that I recorded was this circle dance; they call it “Kurski Funk”.
Landau remembered the song and specifically the Russian chant that was in it. He got permission from Winter to use that specific part of the song and re-recorded it with some singers in Los Angeles. From there, he added instruments where he saw fit and created a completely different version of a theme song that Burnett and the entire Survivor crew loved. Landau had decided to move away from the big Hollywood theme because he saw the show as much more Lord of the Flies than Lord of the Rings.
I thought the whole concept of Survivor was Lord of the Flies meets MTV Real World. And I thought this piece of music I had some of that Lord of the Flies vibe, with that nasal Russian chant in there. And they agreed. I played it and everybody went, Shit, that’s it.
The beauty about Ancient Voices is that despite being similar each season, Landau adapted the song the its location. To prepare for this article, I listened to a YouTube video that had the first 32 versions of the theme song, it lasted 34 minutes and I was never bored for a second of it. Listening to them all back to back like that, you pick up on how different each version sounds.
For example, in Africa and Gabon, you hear an African chant mixed in with the usual voices that every season has. Africa has a lot more percussions to simulate an African tribe banging away on their drums during a village gathering. Gabon has almost no drums whatsoever and focuses more on the chant itself. They are both truly beautiful pieces of music. A few other standouts include the very obvious military drumming in Survivor: Palau’s theme and Survivor: Panama’s more muted and slowed down version to mimic the season’s zombie and death theme.
In Survivor: All-Stars one of the coolest things Landau did was take the previous seven theme song incarnations and fuse them all into one. Not only was the season a collection of some of the most memorable Survivor players up until then (and Amber), the music was too. It’s so subtle that it can be missed but when you notice it, it’s an extra touch that demonstrates how much love Landau put into his music.
Much has been said about Survivor: China’s theme song being the best of the bunch and it is really good. For me personally, Survivor: Nicaragua has a theme song that ultimately went unused that would beat any other Survivor theme song. It is so markedly different from any other version that it stood out from the rest. It’s a shame that it ultimately went unused.
As an added companion to the music, Survivor themes usually contain amazing imagery. Nothing can top Survivor: Tocantins’ animal metaphors with some of its contestants. Those include a jaguar being compared to JT Thomas as a simile for his dominant victory, a bird flying with a quick cut to Debbie Beebe looking like she is also about to take off and Tyson Apostol and a bird both emerging from the water like predators.
Landau didn’t just handle the theme song, he took care of everything that had to do with music for Survivor. During the first season, he was one of two people who scored the show. After that, he was on his own up until Blood vs Water. For a show that has music basically constantly playing to underscore the emotions happening on screen, Landau has his work cut out for him. Through all those years of hard work, he really crafted an amazing bag of sounds that enrich the experience of watching Survivor. Try picturing the show without its amazing tribal council soundtrack playing as someone gets blindsided. It just wouldn’t be the same.
Unfortunately, Landau quit the show in 2013 to have some more time for himself. His name still appears in the credits and will until the end of time for birthing Ancient Voices. Survivor is still doing just fine with its musical score despite Landau’s departure but there is something to be said about his influence that they have just continued copying his style after Landau left.
It doesn’t get enough credit but the music on Survivor is just as important as anything else for giving the show its identity. There was no show back in 2000 that was playing music as constantly as different as Survivor. Russ Landau understood how important having the audience feel like they were on location was for the total immersion of the viewer. He did an amazing job at capturing that feel with his sounds.
For my money, I don’t think I will ever hear a television theme song that makes me feel more things than Ancient Voices does every time it hits my ear drums and I like it that way.