Singer and voice of The Lion King on capturing the sound of Africa in film

South African artist is a regular performer at composer Hans Zimmer's world tours

South African singer Lebo M has collaborated with film composer Hans Zimmer for more than three decades. Photo: Brian Rasic / WireImage
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The euphoric Zulu chant opening the 1994 Disney film The Lion King is meant to herald new life, but for the artist behind the score, it was the performance of a lifetime.

South African singer Lebo M is adamant his contribution to the Oscar-winning track, Circle of Life, remains his best-ever vocal take.

This is despite having an impactful career, one in which his mellifluous and heart-rending tones feature in the films The Power of One (1992) and Tears of the Sun (2003).

At the heart of these evocative works is a deep friendship and collaboration with German composer Hans Zimmer, to be celebrated in Dubai when the duo performs at the Coca-Cola Arena this Friday and Saturday.

As part of the Hans Zimmer Live world tour, Lebo M will take the stage to sing a medley of The Lion King tracks including He Lives In You, This Land and King of Pride Rock.

However, it is the Circle of Life eliciting the biggest reaction and that he feels proudest of.

The song appears in the powerful scene in which young cub Simba is presented to the pride on top of Pride Rock, a mountain overlooking a lush South African savannah.

Speaking to The National, Lebo M, 58, says the song captures a moment when the artist and his home nation were in transition.

With The Lion King released only two months after South Africa's discriminatory apartheid political system was abolished and Nelson Mandela appointed the first black president, Lebo M describes the turbulent period as inspiring his performances for the film.

"It was a period in my life where I was returned to South Africa from a life in exile and everything about that movie — thematically, lyrically, emotionally and spiritually — I could relate to," he says.

"I remember I was about to leave the studio when I saw the clip of Simba taken on top of Pride Rock. They explained the scene to me and I looked at Hans and said turn on the mic and I just sung that chant.

“The lyrics are very metaphorical and have the South African languages Zulu and Xhosa.

“What you hear in the film is what I did the first time in the demo track. We did many more takes, of course, but the first one sounded so authentic.”

A form of acting

As instinctual as that performance was, it is also the labour of a studied hand.

Born in a poor township of Soweto in Johannesburg, Lebo M (full name Lebohang Morake) began performing in night clubs from the age of nine before receiving a US government-funded scholarship for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington.

Eventually moving to Los Angeles, his career break arrived when he landed a job as a studio assistant to Hilton Rosenthal, music supervisor for The Power of One, who introduced him to Zimmer.

“Hans was kind enough to ask me for some ideas for the film and we just hit it off in the studio straight away. I worked on a number of songs with him for the film,” Lebo M says.

“The common theme to what Hans does is emotion and the work I do with him is similar to an actor. I try to bring the emotion from the perspective of different characters in different movies and this is really what makes these works so special."

While Zimmer is a master of production, it was Lebo M’s understanding of African rhythms that made their collaboration a success.

"We found a marriage of African authenticity and this Eurocentric concept of sound which is about music being recorded in the highest quality in terms of how it's written, produced and packaged," he says.

"I come from a strong and rich heritage but African music never really got the respect it deserves because the quality and standards were not there.

“Teaming up with Hans changed that and now Hollywood started respecting and investing in producing quality soundtracks that represent the African content."

Feeling free in Abu Dhabi

That trend also reverberated in the region, with Lebo M recently featuring in Symphony of Three: Peace, Love, Tolerance, an orchestral work commissioned and produced by the Abu Dhabi Festival.

Inspired by the Abrahamic Family House, the interfaith complex currently being built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, Lebo M features in a movement composed by Emirati Ihab Darwish.

Titled Earth, the section — through its fusion of classical music with Levant and South African vocals and rhythms — is meant to evoke the creation of the Earth and mankind.

For someone so used to channelling the emotions of a particular character, Lebo M described Symphony of Three as the rare chance to perform as himself in the studio.

"When Ihab described the concept for me, I could relate to it emotionally," he says.

"He would send me some rough cuts of what he had written and I would sing on top of them. Through that co-writing process, we have become brothers through music, faith and emotion.

“I am so glad I will come to the UAE to be on stage with Hans again and meet my brother Ihab. I look forward to building that connection with the UAE for many more years."

Hans Zimmer Live, featuring Lebo M, will take place at the Coca-Cola Arena on Friday (sold out) and Saturday at 9pm. Tickets, starting at Dh295, are available at www.coca-cola-arena.com

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Updated: January 26, 2023, 12:19 PM