It's one of the most iconic opening scenes in movie history. A hazy orange sun rises over the African Savannah to the sound of an authoritative, arresting call of a lone Zulu voice.
"Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba," he booms, as a cooing chant fades in behind. The empty screen begins to fill with animals answering the call; soaring flamingos, stampeding zebra, leaping gazelles and hulking elephants, before the line's repeated, only this time with more flourish and intensity.
As the music to The Circle of Life fully kicks in, a baboon shaman thrusts his arms up to the heavens to present to the assembled herds a small lion cub, their new prince.
This is the emotion-grabbing start of Disney's 1994 animated classic The Lion King. Even now, decades later, this scene still hits on a spiritual level. The animation, groundbreaking at its time, plays a part, yes, but it's that lone voice, its timbre as rich and deep as South Africa's cultural history, that resonates.
It belongs to Lebo M, full name Lebohang Morake, a South African musician and composer who worked alongside composer Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack to the film, and would later be heavily involved with the Broadway musical, which begins its Auckland run at Spark Arena on June 24.
Morake had worked on movie soundtracks before but it's this song, arguably its opening phrase, that changed his life. It also happened entirely by chance.
"Initially, I did a demo with Hans, which literally is the first thing you hear in the movie, and a day later I went back to South Africa," he recalls, adding that he didn't know what the then untitled film was about. Leaving the studio a screen playing a small animated clip caught his eye.
"I asked, 'What was that?' and someone said, 'That's the moment the young prince is presented.' I asked Hans to turn on the mic and literally said, 'Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba' in one take and I left. A month or so later when I was hired, I flew to Los Angeles to start working on the project. We tried to do so many different takes but that very first take ended up in the movie. It became clear that the organic nature of how that first take was performed cannot be messed with."
It all could have been very different. Morake's journey from poverty in South Africa to becoming the musical spirit of one of Disney's biggest blockbusters of both stage and screen would make for a great movie itself.
"I've done it all. I washed dishes. I've been a valet and a taxi driver. I was a specialist in cleaning church toilets," he laughs.
Born during apartheid, Morake says he's a product of the 1976 Soweto uprising, which was led by school children.
"Young people basically flipped the country upside down," he says.
The social turbulence saw many kids lured into street gangs or the political fight. This would have been his fate had he not discovered another road.
"Around age 9 I became a youth club kid doing ballroom dance, which saved me from the streets and gangs and any direct political activity. I was not in the streets."
His first professional job was as a background singer at Soweto's most prestigious nightclub, where he performed with South Africa's best musicians.
"As a young person of 14 it was exciting and fun. The Pelican was the premier nightclub. The ultimate entertainment supper club. You'd have a mixture of political activists, businessmen, thugs ... all kinds of things," he recalls. "I was fortunate to somehow find myself there. In the midst of a very difficult political environment I get to cherish that time of my life."
A couple of years later the Pelican's DJ told Morake about a hot new club that had opened in Lesotho, a neighbouring country. Sensing opportunity, he followed his friend.
"I left with my friend through political channels on an underground railroad, not knowing that I was going into exile," he sighs. "No one had told me I needed ID, I didn't have one. No one had told me I needed a passport."
It didn't work out. He wasn't hired and when he went to return home he discovered he couldn't.
"I'm in exile. It was initially quite traumatic," he says. "But coming from Soweto and having dreams there was no such thing as something is difficult or impossible. You just go with the flow and focus on your love and passion."
Morake's relaxed attitude is striking. Faced with such stressful and overwhelming problems how do you just "go with the flow"?
"When you're born in poverty, grow up in poverty, you don't know the outside world. You only know the environment that you're in. It's only when you enter different communities, in my case travelling from South Africa to Lesotho then to America, you only then realise how disadvantaged your background and life has been as a child. But the advantage is that by the time you're exposed to everything else, the 'go with the flow' mode is part of your system. There is no struggle that can be harsher than what is already embedded in your system. It's kind of survival instincts, I guess."
He found work performing in restaurants and hotels until his talent was spotted by Lesotho's ambassador to America, who helped make arrangements for him to study in the United States. After finishing school he split his time between Washington and New York performing in nightclubs and washing dishes.
"I ended up in Los Angeles in 1983. I had big dreams but ended up living in the streets for almost a year or two," he says. "I hustled my way up basically, through music."
A chance meeting led to work as a go-fer at a movie studio where composer Hans Zimmer was working on the soundtrack for the South African-set World War II drama, The Power of One. Zimmer was introduced to Morake and was so impressed by his innate musicality he asked him to assist on the soundtrack. Morake ended up co-writing and co-producing the soundtrack with Zimmer. The rest, as they say, is history.
With its colourful characters, entertaining story, groundbreaking animation and the infectious vibrancy of its South African soundtrack, The Lion King was a global hit. It became the highest-grossing film of 1994 and Morake won a Grammy for his work on the soundtrack.
"I remember the Grammys night," he smiles. "I was in the toilet when I was announced for a Grammy."
When the idea for a musical came about Morake was quickly recruited to the early creative team. He worked as core composer and choral director backstage while also performing in the original cast as the antelope. "I'm still trying to figure out how I did that," he grins.
The production, which opened on Broadway in 1997, won six Tony awards and recently set New Zealand's record as the fastest-selling musical of all time, selling more than 84,000 tickets in just five weeks.
"Whoa!" he exclaims when that last achievement is mentioned. "I'm glad they didn't tell me that, because I'm a cry baby. There's always something, something special, anywhere in the world when we start to run the show. It never gets tiring, the energy and spirit is still the same. And hearing you say that, I wish there was no Covid because I would have been there right now. I still feel the same emotion. The show still captures me. It's exciting."
The Lion King International Tour opens on June 24, 2021 at Spark Arena for a strictly limited season.