Star mentality — it’s not something often found in the dusty streets of Soweto, South Africa, but one of its denizens discovered that it would literally transport him into the arms of America’s most prestigious members of the music industry. As a black man in South Africa, life was never easy. Coming to America to pursue a career in entertainment might not ever cross a person’s mind, much less become a reality. Aside from his extraordinary talent and drive, Lebo M possesses a special quality that makes everyone he meets want to do anything for him.
Lebo M (an abbreviated version of his last name, Morake) left school and began his career at the age of 9. Performing in the emotive nightclubs in his native Soweto, he was inspired by the songs of the diamond mine workers and Zulu music. “The early 30′s American jazz and R&B were very popular in my country,” Lebo says with a heartwarming smile. “I loved Marvin Gaye and The Commodores, my father could sing any Louis Armstrong song and my mom was really into American jazz.”
Seduced by these inspirations, Lebo took to the streets where he indulged in the ghetto gangs, but always carried with him a deep desire to become an entertainer. At age 13, he became the youngest nightclub performer in Soweto. As the headline act at the top club, “The Pelican,” a producer in the audience one evening invited him to record a single. “He just threw me in the studio and said ‘sing,’” Lebo remembers.
Recording his first record developed Lebo’s professionalism as a singer, but most of all gave him confidence to spread his wings. In 1978, he left home for Lesotho, where he and his best friend Vernon entertained foreigners at the Victoria Hotel.
They remained there in exile until meeting a man who broadened their views, providing visions of what might await them in America — that man happened to be the Ambassador to the U.S., Tim Thahane. Recognizing their exceptional talent and drive, Thahane arranged for them to take the admission exams at the Duke Ellington School of Music in Washington, D.C.
In Washington D.C., Lebo and Vernon were adopted by a church and played piano in the choir. “I loved gospel, and it was my first wish to hear the choirs at an African American church,” says Lebo. At every opportunity available, he created his own music in impromptu sessions. His African musical style thrilled audiences, but most importantly provided a barometer from which he received immediate feedback on his compositions.
Both Lebo and Vernon passed the exams at Duke Ellington, and spent 3 years there. They then went to New York and continued on at the New Metropolitan School of Arts. While at school, they performed in a band with their old friend Muntu (son of Caiphus Semanya author of some of Miriam Makaba, Hugh Masekela and Letta Mbulu’s hits) and played the clubs in New York. Suddenly, in 1983, they left for Los Angeles, per the invitation of an acquaintance.
The City of Angels quickly became a scene of despair as Lebo found himself literally begging on downtown street corners, he was only 18 years old. But the outlook quickly brightened when he landed his first job at McDonald’s and enrolled at Los Angeles City College. While attending classes, Lebo worked non-stop parking cars, washing dishes, tending a hot dog stand in Watts, cleaning church floors, anything to make ends meet.
His first showcase at Marla Gibbs’ Memory Lane on King Boulevard led him back into the entertainment arena. There, he met bassist Del Atkins who became one of his closest friends and taught him about the L.A. music scene. Lebo and Del worked together with some of L.A.’s top musicians which included the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section.
In 1988, Lebo performed in a 9-month musical stage production (“Buwa”) in Africa, but quickly returned when asked to create an African choir for the Academy Awards “Cry Freedom” nomination. His first big gig in the U.S., the Academy Awards telecast, was given a standing ovation.
From there, things continued to spiral upward, and Lebo worked on the Oscar nominated short film “Senzinina.” He then tackled the most challenging project of his career when he co-wrote the music and lyrics, co-produced the soundtrack and conducted a 110-person choir for Warner Bros.’ “The Power of One.” It was on this project that Lebo met and first worked with Hans Zimmer and producer/engineer Jay Rifkin. “This was the first time I had worked on a project of this magnitude,” Lebo explains with a twinkle of inspiration in his eye. “Working with Hans was amazing because I had always considered him to be the most celebrated composer in the world.” And when the film was released, Lebo’s luck had struck again, “The Power of One” became critically acclaimed — for the music.
In 1989, Lebo rekindled his relationship with Caiphus Semanya, whose “strict” work ethic was sometimes getting him out of bed at 4 a.m. so that he could observe mixing sessions in the studio. Semanya introduced Lebo to Quincy Jones and worked with him on his “Back on the Block” project. Like everyone he met, Jones took a liking to Lebo and used his work in the Warner Bros. movie “Listen Up.”
As Lebo prepared to return to South Africa in 1990 to visit his family, he bumped into Mbongeni Ngemna, creator and director of the Broadway hit musical “Sarafina.” “I was supposed to leave the next day, when Mbongeni asked me to join his cast. Although I really wanted to go home, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. As it turned out, I’m glad I stayed because I met my wife, Nandi, who was an actress in the cast.” Lebo performed throughout the year in the U.S. and Canada and finally went home in 1991 to settle his family.
Lebo was performing in South Africa when he received a call from Hans Zimmer, who had been searching throughout Africa for him.
“He told me Disney was doing a new feature film titled `The Lion King’ and asked that I join him in Los Angeles immediately,” Lebo says, his smile widening into a grin. “He apparently searched pretty hard for me in Africa.”
In 1992, Lebo returned to Los Angeles where he and Hans worked together on the soundtrack for “The Lion King,” their arrangement of which won the duo a Grammy. “Working on this project was the most gratifying part of my career so far,” smiles Lebo. His credits include lead vocalist, choral arranger, conductor a co-writer — it is his soaring voice that cuts through the stale movie house air as the film opens.
Lebo recently finished recording his debut album for Walt Disney Records titled “Rhythm of the Pride Lands.” A collaboration with Hans Zimmer & Jay Rifkin, the record shipped Gold on February 28, 1995, was released in South Africa in March 1995. The album has sold over 800,000 copies in the United States and hit the top of the charts in Germany and France. “Rhythms” features Lebo’s original work, some of it a follow-up from “The Lion King” soundtrack. The collection of exhilarating songs are backed by resonant African choirs and intoxicating rhythms. Lebo’s work communicates clearly his African heritage while expressing, through melody and words, his intrinsic love of life. Other recent credits include the feature films “Outbreak” in which he provided African choral arrangements and Warner Bros’ “Born To Be Wild” on which he performed and co-wrote a composition with Mark Snow and Paramount Pictures Congo, on which he worked with famed composer Jerry Goldsmith. Lebo recently returned from Switzerland where he performed in the Montreaux Jazz Festival.
When Lebo celebrated his 30th birthday last year, he was presented with a birthday cake for the first time in his life. He continues to dedicate much of his time to his very much missed confidante, Vernon, who died in a car accident in 1992. Lebo is the father of three children, all girls, Zakiya, 8 1/2; Nthabi, 7 1/2 and Refilwe, 9 months. He and Nandi retain residences in both Los Angeles and South Africa.