As a young mu­si­cian, Lebo M fled apartheid South Africa be­fore be­com­ing syn­ony­mous with one of Dis­ney’s great­est global hits, writes Cameron Pegg

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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