The Sound of The Lion King

Collage of various posters of the movie 'Lion King'

“Whoa, this isn’t what I expected from a Disney movie!”

-Hans Zimmer’s reaction to working with Lebo M in 1994.


Lebohang Morake, a political refugee from Apartheid South Africa, was late. He rang the doorbell ten minutes before 6:00 p.m. and leaned against the door frame, cool and casual. Hans Zimmer grabbed him and stood him in front of a microphone. They both had to figure out the main idea of the opening song for The Lion King‘s opening scene before the movie’s directors and producers showed up at Zimmer’s at six. Lebo M did it in just one take; he began to blast a Zulu chant, singing powerfully at the top of his voice in Mbube style. His cadence was deafening; his pitch was unusually high, and yet the melody still seemed to be in his tessitura.

Nants’ ingonyama bagithi baba

Sithi huu ngonyama

Hayi baba sizongqoba

Ngonyama, ngonyama, ngonyama

Ingonyama nengwe enamabala

Hans Zimmer fused Lebo M’s Zulu chant with the background vocals from a South African choir. To that Zulu chant, he added English vocals from an Elton John and Tim Rice song titled “Circle Of Life,” sung by Carmen Twillie. His vision for the opening song was complete. The filmmakers listened, went off and huddled in a corner, whispering to each other. Zimmer watched them and thought he was going to be fired—the filmmakers had only asked for thirty seconds of music before going into the dialogue. But Hans had gotten carried away and produced a whole four-minute African-style tune instead.

“I can change it,” he said aloud. But, the filmmakers adored it.  Their private conversation had been about how to redesign the opening scene of the movie. Hans Zimmer’s first-person account of that magical creative moment with Lebo M in 1994 is contained within the liner notes of the 2019 version of The Lion King soundtrack.

An Innovative Soundtrack for the Ages

That opening song, “Circle Of Life,” spread its unique mood to the entire The Lion King soundtrack, which became a childhood anthem for a generation of millennials. It was that authentic African voice, and that harmonious act by the South African choir and Carmen Twillie, that grabbed the audience’s attention. Their innovative performance evokes such deep emotion that it is clear why The Lion King has one of the most memorable opening scenes in animated cinema.

The Lion King’s signature sound went on to inspire the scores of future Disney cartoons. Hans Zimmer deployed his weaponry of full orchestra instruments in scoring The Lion King. The second song of the album, “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” is a playful song characterized by simple flutes and drums. Performed by Jason Weaver and Laura Williams, it is evocative of Simba’s happy childhood around Pride Rock. “Be Prepared” is the darkest of all the songs, evil and menacing at its core, as it heralds Scar’s ambitions of usurping power from Mufasa with the hyenas. “Hakuna Matata,” the free-spirited mid-tempo track delivers a strong message of resilience.

On the other side of pure romance is the heartfelt, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” Slow and suave, with draggy flute sounds, Nala melodiously wonders why her first love, Simba, has changed drastically after his father’s death. The original composition of “Circle Of Life” by Elton John and Tim Rice, which provides the sample for the opening song follows suit. Contrary to the movie adaptation, Elton John’s original take on “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is a fast tempo, Rock-n-Roll dance track, infused with conspicuous electric guitar riffs and a sonorous piano. Elton deftly slows down the tempo in his version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, which is stripped down to just his velvety Alto bass voice and twinkly piano keys.

New Music for a New Generation 

Twenty-five years after the original soundtrack to The Lion King, a new soundtrack to the 3D animated remake was released in the summer of 2019. Although it mostly sticks to the Hans Zimmer tradition of old, Jon Favreau and Pharell Williams’ production reworks the album such that it fits into the mold of the new. The soundtrack parades old songs in lush skin like vintage wine that only appreciates in value. It fends off the British Rock in the 1994 soundtrack to show off affluent orchestral sounds, Isicathamiya, improvisatory wailing and ululations.

“Be Prepared” is much darker and sounds better than the 1994 version. Donald Glover and Beyoncé’s mellifluent vocals on “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” caress their romantic rendition into the twilight of coital bliss. “Spirit” is an uplifting song by Beyoncé, who sings along with a choir. Her voice rises and falls repeatedly, like the crests and troughs of a wave. Her low tune crawls along the piano beat at first, before halting when the beat breaks completely on numerous occasions. Her vocals then peak in an incredibly high falsetto when the beat returns in celestial song reminiscent of church. Next, Elton John performs a new, fast-paced pop track, “Never Too Late.”

A few songs from the two The Lion King sequels are included on the 2019 soundtrack. “He Lives In You” is performed by Lebo M in Zulu, rather than in English. The wildly popular “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” performed by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, is still timeless. Few songs have covered greater distance in both time and space. In fact, it has been sampled by 150 music groups and artists worldwide, making it the most sampled song ever. A new version of “Mbube,” the sample for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” completes the album with its brisk, thumping drums. The deceased South African singer, Solomon Popoli Linda, who had been totally forgotten in the world music scene for a long time, receives co-writing credits for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and full writing credits for “Mbube.” However, Linda’s accreditation did not come easily.

The Inglorious

“Once upon a time, a long time ago, a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone in the only recording studio in Africa and sang thirteen notes that went on to earn something like fifteen or sixteen million dollars, almost none of which came back to him after he died to his descendants in South Africa.” Rian Malan on the 2019 Netflix Documentary, The Lion’s Share.

In 2000, a South African journalist named Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine. Malan recounted a story that shed more light on the intellectual property theft of “Mbube,” a song that was written and recorded by Linda and his choir, The Evening Birds. Little did Malan know the impact his article was going to have in righting an old wrong.

Solomon Linda was born in Msinga in rural KwaZulu Natal in 1909. He attended the Gordon Memorial Mission school, where he was exposed to different music genres through church music and choir contests. Linda began to fuse his influences of African American music styles and indigenous music into the Zulu songs he wrote, which he and his friends sang at weddings. In 1931, he left his hometown to find work in urban Johannesburg and sought employment at the Carlton Hotel, where he continued to sing in the evenings. He formed a new choir called The Evening Birds. The group began to participate in choir competitions and were spotted by a talent scout. They were given the opportunity to record their music at the Gallo Record Company Music studio, the only recording studio in Africa at the time.

In 1939, Linda and the Evening Birds recorded the song “Mbube.” During the second of three takes, Linda began to improvise, wailing at a high pitch like a bird, infusing a female vocal texture into male singing with bass singers—it was the first display of the falsetto. Linda sadly sold the rights to “Mbube” to Gallo for ten shillings (less than two dollars today). The song went on to become a hit, selling more than one hundred thousand copies in South Africa by 1949—a phenomenal success at the time. However, Linda lived in poverty until his death in 1962. A tombstone was only constructed at his gravesite eighteen years after he was buried.

Meanwhile, “Mbube” made its way to New York through American musicologist Alan Lomax, who gave it to his friend, folk musician Pete Seeger of The Weavers. Seeger retitled it “Wimoweh,” an incorrect phonetic rendering of the song’s Zulu refrain “Uyembube.” Because the song was incorrectly introduced to the American music scene as a traditional folk song, some Western artists sampled the song and failed to credit Linda, including The Weavers. They recorded a studio and live version of “Mbube,” which became the inspiration for a lyric version later recorded by The Tokens. The Tokens retitled the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” This lyric version was subsequently featured in the second sequel of The Lion King and its stage musical.

Since South Africa was still a British colony when the rights of “Mbube” were sold, under the Dickens Clause in British Law, all rights were supposed to revert to Linda’s heirs after twenty-five years of his death. His heirs were also supposed to be in a position to renegotiate any future deals involving the song. This did not happen though. Linda’s work continued to be poached by at least 150 international artists. Rian Malan estimated that the song has generated approximately fifteen million dollars to date.

In 2004, with the backing of the South African government and Gallo Records, Linda’s three daughters sued The Walt Disney Company for its use of “Mbube” in The Lion King movie and stage musical without accreditation and for not paying royalties to them. The harrowing tale, the lawsuit, and the aftermath of the out of court settlement that ensued is captured in the 2019 Netflix documentary, The Lion’s Share.

A Lion Queen for The Lion King

Beyoncé voices the character of Nala in the 3D animated version of The Lion King, which was released in 2019. She also played a huge role in defining its soundtrack, as she was chosen to oversee the album produced by Pharell Williams for the project titled The Lion King: The Gift. Beyoncé called it her love letter to Africa.

“I wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa and not just use some of the sounds and do my interpretation of it,” Beyoncé told ABC News. “I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about music in Africa.”

The album is a U-turn from the ugly antecedent of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It also seems to be a well-computed Disney move: a superstar African-American singer and a superstar African-American producer leading a music project with their picks of the best living artists from the land of The Lion King once again. Unlike the Elton John days, black artists led and were well-credited for the project.

Even though music from South Africa reigns supreme in the movies’ soundtracks, there is a bias for West Africa in The Lion King: The Gift, which prompted an uproar about musical exclusion in East Africa—the historical setting of the film. There are six artists from Nigeria alone: Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Mr Eazi, Tekno and Yemi Alade. Two South African artists, Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly were chosen. Also, Salatiel from Cameroon and Shatta Wale from Ghana made the cut. The musicians were given a great deal of artistic freedom. They don’t only sing in English, Pidgin English, Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa and Yoruba, but they also incorporate several music genres from the continent and elsewhere into the album: Afrobeats, highlife, Gqom, pop, R&B and hip-hop.

Wizkid stars in “Brown Skin Girl,” a tender, Afrobeats-inspired tune that went viral when the album was released. The song sounds like drumsticks hitting each other over a sparse piano beat. Beyoncé and her daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, join Wizkid in delivering melanin centric vocals on a track which quickly transforms into an anthem of blackness. Salatiel lights up “Water” with a romantic performance alongside Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams. While it is a ballad with a flute filled digital effect, it still succeeds in flaunting a strong dance feel, beautified by loud chants and ululations.

Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi togoether deliver “Keys To The Kingdom,” a very slow track, soused with influences of R&B and highlife. Tiwa especially caresses the song with her honeyed vocals and it is such joy to hear. “My Power” is not just the best dance song on the album, but it also possesses a lot of swagger. Inspired by the fast rhythms of South African house, Gqom, two women, Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly, inject their Zulu energy into the track’s electronic synths. Even Beyoncé takes a backseat to both of them, and American rapper Tierra Whack delivers the album’s best rap verse on the track.

“Don’t Jealous Me” by Yemi Alade, Tekno and Mr Eazi falls flat, well below the radar of the talented trio’s best efforts. Elsewhere, Kendrick Lamar inflects his funk rap sound on “Nile” together with Beyoncé, but the brief song doesn’t deliver. “Mood 4 Eva” is complex, beautiful and inspired by “Hakuna Matata,” according to Beyoncé. The song samples Grammy-award winning Malian songstress Oumou Sangaré in her nineties classic love song, “Diaraby Nene.” Jay-Z’s verse is laden with popular culture references and African history. Beyoncé raps too, before the beat switches completely to Spanish guitar riffs and Childish Gambino’s melodic bridge. “Already” with Major Lazer and Shatta Wale is a West African club banger, with a mixed Reggae dancehall and high life texture. Shatta Wale’s hoarse voice contribution enthuses his verve.

The Grammy nominated African giant, Burna Boy, has a standalone track, “Ja Ara E”—the only artist on the album with such a feat. Burna Boy takes it nice and slow in his assured Afrofusion style. It is a good song, but it doesn’t match the pedigree of his major hits like “Ye” and “Anybody.” The same could be said of a few other African artists on the album. It is hard to believe Tekno is even present. However, The Lion King: The Gift has boosted the already phenomenal careers of these artists to Beyoncé’s fanbase. It has been criticized, too, for not capturing these African sounds in their true form, only a hybrid form, which will appeal to Beyoncé’s audience.

The project was a lucrative venture for these artists. Cameroonian singer, Salatiel stated on social media that it has been his highest paying music venture yet. It is a move in the right direction. While the discussion about how to market African music to a global audience continues, these artists should always be credited and compensated for their work on such ventures, especially because their work also helps generate a lot of revenue. As the highly distinctive soundtracks of The Lion King have gone a long way in inspiring how other Disney animated films are scored, so have the artists who all sang on them.

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