From the streets to ‘king’ of the red car­pet

Saturday Star - - METRO -


THE Los An­ge­les Grey­hound bus ter­mi­nal was a noisy and some­times dan­ger­ous place in the mid-1980s when Le­bo­hang Mo­rake ar­rived there at the age of 22.

Mo­rake, a South African who had been per­form­ing in night­clubs in his na­tive coun­try since he was a child, found him­self among those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness, jostling to find a place to sleep at night.

“I was a street beg­gar,” said Mo­rake – who has since had a dra­matic re­ver­sal of for­tunes – and is now a Grammy-win­ning mu­si­cian known around the world as “Lebo M”.

Last month, Dis­ney flew him to the Hol­ly­wood pre­miere of The Lion King and put him up at the Ritz Carlton ho­tel. Pa­parazzi at the Lon­don de­but snapped pho­tos of the 55-year-old as he smiled, next to Elton John and Bey­oncé, and shook hands with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sus­sex.

It was the lat­est in a stun­ning string of suc­cesses for Lebo M, a pro­ducer and com­poser who won a Grammy Award for The Lion King Cir­cle of Life, and a singer whose iconic voice be­gins the open­ing scene in the film.

He at­tributes his suc­cess to the same thing he thinks makes The Lion King story so res­o­nant: With enough heart, even those who have been cast aside can tri­umph.

Lebo M was born in Soweto in 1964. He didn’t have many out­lets for his early and out­size mu­si­cal tal­ent in his hum­ble be­gin­nings.

He be­gan singing jazz pro­fes­sion­ally, and recorded his first sin­gle in 1977, when he was 14.

Two years later, he fol­lowed a migration of young peo­ple to Le­sotho to pur­sue a mu­si­cal ca­reer. He had heard about a new night­club open­ing.

Shortly after he ar­rived, he learned that he had been ex­iled, for­bid­den by the white South African regime to re­turn to his fam­ily in Soweto. The rea­son? He didn’t have a pass­port or an ID, he said.

Then one night, Lebo M per­formed be­fore Le­sotho’s am­bas­sador to the US, Tim Tha­hane, who no­ticed the teenager’s vo­cal tal­ent. With Tha­hane’s help, Lebo M ap­plied to the Duke Elling­ton School of the Arts in Wash­ing­ton and was soon ac­cepted.

After grad­u­at­ing in 1983, Lebo M thought he’d found his path to suc­cess. A mu­sic pro­ducer promised him an op­por­tu­nity to record a sin­gle on the West Coast of the US.

He scraped to­gether the money for a one-way ticket. After ar­riv­ing in Los An­ge­les, the singer got into the pro­ducer’s car, he re­called, but it turned out to be a scam. After learn­ing that the African refugee didn’t have any money, the pro­ducer dumped him on the side of the road, he said.

On Thurs­days and Fri­days, he of­ten show­cased at Marla’s Mem­ory Lane Jazz and Sup­per Club, the club owned by Marla Gibbs from The Jef­fer­sons.

“That’s when I was slowly com­ing out of the streets,” Lebo M said.

Then, in a stroke of luck, he ran into a friend from his child­hood who was a bass player for South African singer and song­writer Johnny Clegg, who was in Los An­ge­les on a world tour. Lebo M met Clegg’s pro­ducer, who gave him a job at his record­ing stu­dio.

“I was the tea guy there, the run­ner,” he said. “When the stu­dio wasn’t busy, I would do demos.”

Through the stu­dio, in 1991, he met Hans Zim­mer, who had cre­ated scores for the Os­car-win­ning movies Rain Man and Driv­ing Miss Daisy, and was work­ing on The Power of One,a film set in South Africa. He and Zim­mer hit it off, and they col­lab­o­rated on the film. Lebo M ended up co-pro­duc­ing, co-writ­ing and per­form­ing the sound­track for the film with Zim­mer. It was his break­out pro­ject. “That started our friend­ship and pro­fes­sional work­ing jour­ney,” said Lebo M.

The next year, Lebo M ended his 13-year ex­ile and re­turned home as Nel­son Man­dela was poised to be­come South Africa’s first black pres­i­dent.

In Los An­ge­les, Zim­mer be­gan work­ing with Dis­ney on an un­named African an­i­ma­tion pro­ject, and he wanted Lebo M. Zim­mer tracked him down in Soweto and they col­lab­o­rated on the sound­track for The Lion King, which was re­leased in 1994.

It opens with Cir­cle of Life and Lebo M’s rous­ing mu­si­cal cry, “Nansi in­gonyama, bakithi Baba!”

“It’s just an in­stant emo­tional, spir­i­tual con­nect­ing mo­ment in the cre­ative process that ac­knowl­edges the pres­ence of a king,” he said.

His ground­ing comes from a be­lief he has car­ried with him since his boy­hood in South Africa, and those nights he slept at the bus sta­tion in Los An­ge­les.

“I share in­spi­ra­tion that is based on a very sim­plis­tic ap­proach,” he said. “The hor­ror I’m fac­ing to­day does not define my to­mor­row.”

| The Wash­ing­ton Post

LE­BO­HANG ‘Lebo M’ Mo­rake at The Venue Mel­rose Arch, Joburg in Septem­ber last year. | ITUME­LENG ENGLISH African News Agency (ANA)

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