Born in an apartheid South Africa, with few career prospects, the Grammy-winning musician tells Nick Smurthwaite about his journey from homeless street busker to working with world-renowned composer Hans Zimmer on the film and stage show of The Lion King, now celebrating 20 years in the West End
The story of how a poor boy from a South African township helped create one of the most successful musicals of all time would make a musical in its own right. Fans of Disney film The Lion King will know Lebo M’s voice: He is behind the celebratory Zulu cry that heralds the birth of Simba in The Circle of Life, the opening song in the animated movie, as well as working on the score alongside Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer.
It has been an extraordinary journey for the 55-year-old – real name Lebohang Morake – from a poverty-stricken childhood in one of the most deprived townships of Soweto in Johannesburg during the 1960s and 1970s to international fame and recognition as a singer, composer, producer and arranger, working on productions of The Lion King all over the world.
He says: “There were very few choices in the township. I was horrible at soccer and boxing. I lasted 25 minutes in the boxing ring. So I joined a youth club and did ballroom dancing. I loved it because there was music and you got to be close up with the ladies. It was better than running up and down a soccer field, or being beaten up at boxing.”
Music was always in Lebo’s life. Both his parents sang at home and his father, though always struggling financially, had a collection of American jazz records and traditional South African music. From the age of nine, Lebo was singing with a street band and earning money by providing the music at weddings. He says he loved the limelight. A few years later he began performing regularly at Club Pelican, Soweto’s celebrated nightclub, compared by some to Harlem’s Cotton Club.
“I was probably the youngest nightclub singer in the townships,” he says. “I was the favourite little kid earning 200 rand a month [now worth around £10], which seemed a lot of money to me. I was lucky enough for my talent to be recognised and nurtured by professionals. I am deeply appreciative of my mentors now, the bandleaders and the owner of Club Pelican at the time.”
Appearing alongside Lebo was his close friend Vernon Molefe, two years older, who died aged 30 in 1992. In 1979, in the wake of the anti-apartheid student riots, they decided to try their luck at a newly opened club in neighbouring Lesotho. Lebo was 13. “I wasn’t even aware I was crossing from one country to another, nobody told me that. Later I found I was in exile in a refugee camp,” he says, before adding: “I was unaware we needed IDs and passports to get back to South Africa.”
With the boldness of youth, he and Molefe blagged their way into smart hotels and restaurants in Lesotho, offering to entertain the moneyed clientele with their music. They were talent-spotted by Tim Thahane, Lesotho’s ambassador to the US, who made arrangements for them to travel to America to study music.
‘I became isolated from the success of the movie initially. It became more about the three white guys’
Together the pair enrolled at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington DC, sponsored by Thahane, where they studied music for three years.
On graduating, both still in their teens and virtually penniless, they set off for Los Angeles, where they expected to be welcomed as bright young prodigies. Instead, they slept at the Greyhound bus station and got by busking and begging on the streets. It was a journalist from the LA Times who befriended them and put them up in his cousin’s empty apartment. They found employment at McDonald’s and the local car wash.
Keen to continue his studies, Lebo landed the Bishop Tutu Scholarship to study music and history at Los Angeles City College, where he remained for a year and a half, eventually finding work as an intern at an LA music studio run by the South African musician Johnny Clegg and producer Hilton Rosenthal upon graduation.
He says: “Hilton introduced me to Hans Zimmer, who was doing the music for a movie partly set in South Africa called The Power of One. I think Hans had wanted to team up with Johnny Clegg but he wasn’t in town, so Hilton said to him: ‘You should try this kid.’ I ended up co-writing and performing the music with Hans. I was paid a ridiculous amount of money for it, which we blew immediately on partying and drinking. In two or three months all the money was gone.”
Zimmer was clearly impressed by the young musician because, a year or so later, he summoned Lebo from South Africa – where he had returned to be with his family – to work with him on a demo tape for a new Disney animation, loosely inspired by Hamlet, about a lion cub avenging the murder of his father.
What was your first non-showbiz job?
Working in a car wash.
What was your first paid showbiz job?
A singer at Club Pelican in Soweto.
What is your next job?
Appearing as a guest artist in The World of Hans Zimmer, an international live show.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mother, Nomvula.
What do you wish you had known when you started out?
If you hadn’t been a musician, what would you have been?
Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
I like to shut up for at least five minutes before I go on stage.
So how did Lebo’s voice end up, so memorably, in the film? “I heard a rough demo of the song that became The Circle of Life. Hans told me a little bit about the story and I saw some rough visuals of the opening Pride Rock sequence. Then I said to him: ‘Turn on the mic,’ and I came out with ‘Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba.’ The movie ended up using that first take we did because we found we couldn’t do it any better, any more natural. It became the definition of how the music and the storytelling was going to be driven.”
Did that cry originate in Zulu culture, and what did it mean? “Nobody ever asked me what it meant. It is very hard to translate it into English, it’s a combination of Zulu and Xhosa [both among the official languages of South Africa]. I grew up in a township where there wasn’t one specific language. Metaphorically it means ‘All bow down in the presence of royalty’, but the literal translation is ‘Here comes a lion, father.’ All the African lyrics and vocal arrangements in The Lion King helped Hans to shape the musical themes through lyric and melody.”
Lebo says the success of the film “caught me off guard”, adding: “I became isolated from the success of the movie initially. It became more about the three white guys – Elton, Tim and Hans – until the Broadway stage show, when I became more comfortable with being identified as one of the co-writers. The scale of the [stage] project and the subsequent demand for replica shows sucked me out of my isolation.”
He was brought back to work alongside Broadway director Julie Taymor in 1996. He recalls: “It was the first time I’d worked closely with a director. I loved the way she approached creativity from a very organic place, she stretched the envelope. We’d meet in coffee shops, and she would demonstrate what she wanted by using the sugar and the salt to show me. A lot of the stuff I did, like Grasslands, grew out of these informal conversations.”
Lebo M wears his success lightly. “I can buy a bicycle now,” he jokes, adding that his greatest joy has been to cast and create opportunities for fellow South African singers and dancers to appear in productions of The Lion King all over the world. “It doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing the show for 25 years,” he says. “As long as it’s still fun, I’m sure I can do it for another 25 years.”
Born: 1964, Tladi, Soweto
Training: Duke Ellington Schools of Arts (1980-83)
• Singer at Club Pelican, Soweto (1973-76)
• Celebration, his debut single (1978)
• Sarafina!, Joburg Theatre, Johannesburg (1987)
• The Power of One (film), with Hans Zimmer (1992)
• The Lion King (film), with Hans Zimmer (1994)
• Rhythm of the Pridelands album (1995)
• The Lion King (musical), Broadway (1997)
• The Lion King, West End (1999)
• Tears of the Sun (film), with Hans Zimmer (2003)
• The Lion King, Johannesburg, co-producer (2007)
Lebo M will be appearing in The World of Hans Zimmer at the 02 on November 26. A 20th-anniversary gala performance of Disney’s The Lion King will take place at London’s Lyceum Theatre on October 19