If you are a parent of a little child, or if you just love a good musical, chances are that you saw ‘The Lion King’ in its 2019 avatar, this time featuring photo-realistic graphics in 3-D. Many in my family preferred it over the ‘original’, more conventional, 1994 cartoon version.
Sometimes the story behind the camera can be just as fascinating as the one in front of it.
At the beginning of both film versions, the first thing you hear is ‘Nants’ Ingonyama!’ That opening chant is inextricably linked in our imagination with The Lion King.
It is the voice of Lebohang Morake, better known as Lebo M. The story of this South African singer, composer and producer is quite remarkable. Despite the lack of any formal training in music, he left school in his hometown of Soweto, Johannesburg at the age of nine to perform in nightclubs. He recorded his first single at twelve (receiving a measly $20 in return) and at thirteen became the youngest performer to sing at the Club Pelican nightclub, stepping in for a backup singer.
At 15, he was noticed by the US Ambassador, who helped Morake apply to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Morake jumped at the opportunity to self-exile himself from apartheid-era South Africa. On graduating, he moved to Los Angeles but making ends meet wasn’t easy. It was while he was working as coffee gopher in a studio that he met German film composer Hans Zimmer, who was obviously impressed by Morake. Together, they co-wrote and co-produced the music for the 1992 film ‘The Power of One’.
Zimmer turned again to Morake “to help bring some authentic Africana” to his 1994 commission, “an animated movie about lions”.
In an interview, Lebo M reminisced: “I didn’t even know anything about the movie. I just knew it had something to do with a conflict between a father and a brother, that has a son in it. No detail.”
“I noticed the image of Mufasa. And my entire system went to: What happens when an important person in my country, my culture, walks in? What happens when a king walks in? The musicology of my thought became ‘Nants’ Ingonyama!’ — that then translates to ‘All hail the king. All bow down in the presence of the king.’”
Lebo M contributed vocals and vocal arrangements to the songs and the score of ‘The Lion King’, whose story struck a personal chord in him. “I am the Simba at this point, who grows up in exile. I don’t go back home to take over a country, but I go back home a professional. And Mufasa, to me, becomes immediately the image of Nelson Mandela.”
Although Lebo M and Zimmer come from completely different backgrounds, Zimmer too is in his own way a self-taught musician. He hated the discipline of formal lessons, claiming he had only “two weeks” of piano lessons in his life, and that he was “thrown out of eight schools”.
He was already an established film composer by the 1990s, with more ‘serious’ films such as ‘Rain Man’, ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, ‘The Power of One’, and many others under his belt. What prompted him to take on an animation movie?
He cited two reasons in an interview. In the first place, he didn’t like Disney musicals. But far from being affronted, the producers welcomed a fresh new approach: “Great, that’s exactly what we want! We don’t want somebody who wants to do what we did before.’”
The other reason was his little daughter Annabel. As Zimmer puts it “Every dad wants to show off. And I couldn’t take her to see ‘True Romance’ [an earlier film whose music Zimmer had scored] or something — like a shootout or whatever. I thought, ‘Oh, no, this’ll be good — it’ll be a cartoon, it’ll be funny, it’ll be harmless. It’s about fuzzy animals.’”
But the story hit Zimmer on a visceral level as well, just as it had done to Lebo M. He could relate to Simba as he was orphaned early in life too. “I didn’t realise it was profoundly going to go and hit me in a really hard way… because my dad died when I was six years old — which was her [Annabel’s] age.”
It would take a really hard heart not to shed a tear when Simba prods Mufasa’s lifeless body, urging him to wake up, and we in the audience know he won’t. It’s “just a movie”, but the scene speaks to the child, to the son or daughter in all of us.Those of us who have lost a parent are transported back, if even for a fleeting nanosecond, to that personal trauma.
Zimmer continues, “There I was, and the only thing I could do was to open those deep and dark boxes, and let all the darkness out. And so, weirdly, the score is pretty epic and pretty big for a movie about small, fuzzy animals.”
I thought I detected a (subconscious or deliberate?) snatch of Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ motet in the stirring motif that recurs several times in the film.
Zimmer was looking at new ways to look at the movie score. He had watched an online video recording by the Re-Collective Orchestra, an all-black ensemble founded by Stephanie Matthews and Matt Jones to record the latter’s arrangement of the track ‘All the Stars’ from the 2018 American superhero film ‘Black Panther’. The motivation of the orchestra was to step into the world of Wakanda, asking themselves: “What would the orchestra of Wakanda look like?”
Zimmer invited the members of the Re-Collective Orchestra to collaborate with the LA session players from Hollywood. What resulted was, according to many who witnessed the recording sessions, “the most diverse film scoring session ever”, united by the shared language of music.
“I was going for diversity,” Zimmer said in an interview to NPR (National Public Radio). “And then, as soon as everybody started playing and sitting next to each other, it became this amazing thing — which wasn’t diversity at all. It was unity.”