Lebo M: The Lion King Returns

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The much-anticipated remake of the Disney classic The Lion King has finally premiered around the world. This is the story of the South African who once again created the soundtrack.

It has been 25 years since the smash-hit animated film The Lion King first graced our screens and video collections. In the story, the protagonist, Simba spends many of his formative years in a foreign land after he is forced to flee his home.

While exiled, he is fortunate to find new friends who provide a nurturing environment, and a songbook full of life lessons. And eventually, the young lion returns home to claim his glory in triumph.

Lebo M. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella
Lebo M. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Real Life Experiences of Lebo M

The story of The Lion King offers a remarkable parallel to the real-life experience of Lebohang Morake – known in showbiz as Lebo M – whose musical work on The Lion King films and stage productions are as revered and beloved as the story itself.

Lebo was born in Soweto in 1964 but, much like Simba, found himself far from his home and family in his teens.

The young performer relocated to Lesotho in the late 70s, where a chance discovery by a US ambassador opened a door to a future that few would have predicted. Given the opportunity to start again in a new country, Lebo committed fully to his ambitions in music.

Lebo and his friend Vernon Molefe both took and passed the Duke Ellington School of Music admission examination in Washington, DC, arranged by ambassador Tim Thahane.

The duo spent three years honing their craft at the music school before moving to the New Metropolitan School of Arts in New York.

Making Ends Meet 

A subsequent move to Los Angeles in 1983 brought on some tough times. Lebo was reduced to begging on street corners, parking cars, cleaning floors and taking other minimum-wage jobs while trying to make ends meet.

He used the money he earned to continue his studies at the Los Angeles City College, refusing to let his passion for music fade away.

His commitment was rewarded when he was offered a role in the musical Buwa in Africa, which was to tour Africa in 1988.

His success in this role resulted in an invitation to return to LA to put together an African choir for the film Cry, Freedom, to industry acclaim.

Soon afterwards, while working on music for the film The Power of One, Lebo met film composer Hans Zimmer, an event that would ultimately be a major turning point for his career.

The Lion King 2019 Poster

Back to His Roots

But first Lebo returned to South Africa in 1990 to visit his family… and was promptly approached by Mbongeni Ngema to contribute to the hit musical Sarafina!

Zimmer, meanwhile, had started work on a project for Disney that required African-themed music, which he felt Lebo would be ideally suited to assist with.

“I knew exactly whom I wanted to work with, and just about had to send out search parties into the African bush to find Lebo.” Zimmer later said, “He is the movie.”

The Backbone of The Franchise

Zimmer’s gushing praise was not without cause. Lebo’s songs written for the characters Simba, Nala, Mufasa and Rafiki are beloved by many millions all over the world, and form the backbone of what is one of Disney’s most iconic franchises.

That movie – the original The Lion King – was a smash hit in 1994, and its music earned Lebo a Grammy.

The stage production, which was launched five years later, has to date grossed more than $9 billion internationally, and Lebo’s own stage production returned to South Africa this year once more to acclaim. Lebo also contributed to the film’s sequel, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.

US singer/songwriter Beyonce arrives for the world premiere of Disney's "The Lion King" at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)
US singer/songwriter Beyonce arrives for the world premiere of Disney’s “The Lion King” at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)

The Lion King 2019

All predictions are pointing to similar or perhaps even greater success for the “live-action”-style film remake, which will hopefully recapture that lightning in a bottle by reassembling the musical team.

Zimmer returns to create the music for the film with contributions from Lebo, Elton John, Tim Rice, Beyoncé, and Pharrell Williams.

Words by Anton Marshall

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