Thami Kwazi
Lifestyle Print Editor
3 minute read
22 Jul 2019
10:51 am

Lebo M, king of musical theatre

Thami Kwazi

Zulu on broadway: From an unknown exile to a living legend.

The first thing that comes to mind when hearing the words “lion king” are the lyrics to the opening sequence of the circle of life, that voice that’s heard singing Naaaantsi Ingonyama bakithi baba.

These Zulu lyrics have been heard in cinemas and theatres by audiences the world over. The voice is that of South African composer, producer and singer, Soweto-born Lebo M Morake. In the opening sequence, Morake’s voice is heard being joined by a choir chanting about the arrival of a lion cub that will be presented “to all kingdoms”.

This was the world’s introduction to composer, producer, singer and creator Lebo M, 25 years ago. Morake is also the reason the theatre production of Lion King has become a runaway success. At a time when South Africa was just emerging from apartheid, in 1994, “the production got the world singing, even if they didn’t understand what they were saying, they sang along”, Morake says.

The movie soundtrack united people in theatres through song. It exposed the global community to African languages, Zulu and Swahili, and this was a thrill.

Morake left South Africa for exile at age 16 in 1979. After spending some time in Lesotho, he was spotted by the United States ambassador in Lesotho, Tim Thaana, and went on to study at the Duke Ellington school of the Arts in Washington. Morake moved to the US and the rest, as they say, is history.

While working as a runner and intern, he was introduced to Hollywood producer and composer Hans Zimmer by producer Hilton Rosenthal, the late Johnny Clegg’s producer. Zimmer enlisted Morake’s skills on the soundtrack to the movie Power of One. Bringing in an African touch, this was the beginning and Morake now featured in Zimmer’s world tours.

When the opportunity to work on the first Lion King presented itself, by Zimmer, Morake came on board, even sending a demo of himself singing Naaaantsi Ingonyama bakithi.

Tony award-winner Morake was deeply involved in the theatre production of Lion King, and he often surprised auditioning actors with his presence on the
panel.

He personally selected the stage leads.

Currently running for 21 years worldwide, the Broadway production had been seen by over 95 million around the world. Morake co-produced the sold-out South African leg of the world tour in 2007, which shattered all theatre records. The production was seen by 550 000 people in South Africa, despite a short run.

Fast-forward to July 11 2019, Morake’s 55th birthday, where he got the opportunity to present the new Lion King soundtrack to the world. “I’m very excited about this project because it’s taking place on what I consider a momentous birthday for me,” says Morake.

He also worked with singer Beyoncé on the song Track 14 and with Sir Elton John on other tracks. He has since remastered many old songs to bring them to current younger audiences.

“I got the opportunity to take songs like Mbube, which is by Solomon Linda, and to remake it with music producer Pharell Williams.”

Morake and Williams feature in the end credits of the latest release of the movie.

Reworked and remastered, the right music just seems to hit that emotional spot at the right time. Describing the experience, Morake spoke of his joy in the experience to work with fellow musicians such as Pharell Williams.

Morake is no stranger to producing. His resume includes working with Hans Zimmer and Jerry Goldsmith.

“Artists like Pharell bring a different and special touch to the soundtrack. I could even describe his work as adding a much-needed touch”, said Morake.

Morake can currently be heard on the new Lion King soundtrack and is ready for the whirlwind journey to begin again.

“I’m excited for this new chapter in my life. Africa is always alive with possibilities for the young at heart,” he said.

The new CGI version of Lion King was released in cinemas yesterday.

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