PRIDE (AND JOY)
As a young musician, Lebo M fled apartheid South Africa before becoming synonymous with one of Disney’s greatest global hits, writes Cameron Pegg
You may not know his name, but you will recognise his voice. It rings out across the savanna at the very beginning of The Lion King — a Zulu cry that heralds the start of something special. “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba …” South African musician Lebohang Morake, often shortened to Lebo M, is the man behind that memorable solo, and was there in the studio with legendary composer Hans Zimmer when the first bars of music were written.
Released in 1994, the movie marks its 25th anniversary next year, and Morake will conduct his first solo world tour, commencing in March at the Sydney Opera House.
How did a musician who fled apartheidriven South Africa as a teenager become synonymous with one of Disney’s biggest hits?
Exiled in Los Angeles, Morake worked odd jobs to survive. His big break came while he was a runner at a music studio. His compatriot Hilton Rosenthal was a producer on The Power of One, adapted from the Bryce Courtenay novel, and Zimmer was the film’s composer.
“I brought in coffee and water, and Hilton Rosenthal looked at me and said: ‘Hans, you need to try this kid.’
“And Hans invited me to his studio to sort of guide the language, but that ended up with me co-writing and co-producing and performing the soundtrack to The Power of One.”
Morake thrived in the studio environment, contributing to the choral conducting and arrangements that were pivotal to that film’s narrative. The express nature of his apprenticeship isn’t lost on Morake.
“Yeah, so I went from the coffee studio runner to a film co-composer in a matter of days, and I guess, as they say, the rest is history.”
These days, when he’s not performing, Morake is a powerhouse producer in South Africa — the company he owns was behind the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, among other major projects.
Despite his busy schedule (and having a flight to Cape Town to catch), Morake remains chatty and generous with his time as we speak on the phone. To this day he is stunned at the success of The Lion King and the ways it has transformed his life. (Children of all ages adore the film, with the official Circle of Life scene featuring his voice having been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube.)
As Morake explains, the movie was created at a time when exiled creatives were returning home in large numbers to realise their dream of a unified South Africa.
“What most people don’t know is the very first thing you hear in the movie was done as a demo because, during 1992-93, most of us who grew up in exile were consumed by this grim but great possibility that South Africa is about to change, and before we know it, we woke up to a new president and a new dawn.”
It was only when Morake returned to the studio in Los Angeles to continue work on the music that he read part of the script and glimpsed what was to come.
“The inspiration was my very life, with Simba being me, a young man growing up in exile, eventually coming to take over Pride Rock,” Morake says.
“The power and grace of Mufasa became that of Nelson Mandela. So, everything related to my work with The Lion King was a very personal journey.” Did he ever get to tell Mandela that? He did, but almost blew his chance. It was 3am in Los Angeles after the 1995 Grammy Awards ceremony where The Lion King had won multiple statuettes.
A tired Morake had returned home from celebrating when a call came through, claiming to be from the South African president.
Thinking it was a friend playing a prank, Morake hung up.
A second caller — this time a female staffer, asked for Morake’s fax number.
“And the fax came in with the presidential seal. I almost collapsed. Then president Mandela got on the phone again. He was laughing at me. ‘You hung up on the president!’
“And then he got on the phone and he said:
South African musician Lebohang Morake, aka Lebo M