Biography of Lebo M
Star mentality -- it's not often found in the dusty streets of Soweto, South Africa. Yet, one of Soweto's denizens discovered that it would transport him into the arms of the most prestigious members of America's music industry. The challenge of being black in a country so immersed in racial strife made a career in America's entertainment biz seem unattainable. But star quality is what has helped Grammy®-nominated musician Lebo M shape a bright future on the American music front.
Lebo M (an abbreviated version of his last name, Morake) left school and began his career at the age of nine. Performing in nightclubs in his native Soweto, he was inspired by the songs of the diamond mine workers and Zulu music. "The early '30s 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 always carried a deep desire to become an entertainer -- even when he took to the streets and joined ghetto gangs. At age 13, he became the youngest nightclub performer in Soweto. As the headline act at the city's top club, The Pelican, Lebo was approached by a producer in the audience, who invited him to record a single.
Making his first record further developed Lebo's professionalism as a singer and gave him confidence to spread his wings. In 1978, he left home for Lesotho, where he and his best friend, Vernon, entertained tourists at the Victoria Hotel. They remained there in exile, until they met U.S. Ambassador Tim Thahane, who provided visions of what might await them in America. Recognizing their exceptional talent and drive, Thahane arranged for Lebo and Vernon to take the admission exams at the Duke Ellington School of Music in Washington, D.C.
Once in Washington, 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 available opportunity, he created his own music in impromptu sessions. His African musical style thrilled audiences, but, most important, they provided him with immediate feedback on his compositions.
Both Lebo and Vernon passed the exams at Duke Ellington and spent three years there. Then they went to New York and continued their studies at the New Metropolitan School of Arts. While at school, they performed in a band with their old friend Muntu (son of Caiphus Semanya, who wrote hits for Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Letta Mbulu) and played the clubs in New York. Upon the suggestion of an acquaintance, Lebo and Vernon left for Los Angeles in 1983 to fulfill their musical dreams. When he arrived in L.A., Lebo faced some desperate times. Only 18 years old, he found himself begging on downtown street corners. 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.
At his first showcase, Lebo met bassist Del Atkins, who became one of his closest friends and taught him about the L.A. music scene. Lebo and Del worked with some of L.A.'s top musicians, including the horn section from Earth, Wind & Fire. In 1988, Lebo returned to Africa to perform in a nine-month musical stage production (Buwa), but quickly returned to L.A. when asked to create an African choir for the Academy Awards'® "Cry Freedom" nomination. At the awards ceremony, Lebo's assembly received a standing ovation.
From there, things continued to spiral upward. Lebo worked on the Oscar®-nominated short film Senzinina, and then tackled the most challenging project of his career: co-writing the music and lyrics, co-producing the soundtrack, and conducting a 110-voice 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 in his eye. "Working with Hans was amazing, because I had always considered him to be the most celebrated composer in the world." When the film was released, Lebo proved himself again, as The Power of One was acclaimed by critics for the music.
In 1989, Lebo rekindled his relationship with Caiphus Semanya, who introduced him to Quincy Jones and worked with him on his Back on the Block project. 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 United States and Canada, finally returning home in 1991 to settle down with his family.
Lebo was performing in South Africa when he received a call from Zimmer, who had been searching 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. "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. "Working on this project was the most gratifying part of my career so far," Lebo explains. His credits include choral arranger, conductor, co-writer, and lead vocalist -- it is his soaring voice that captivates the audience as the film opens.
Lebo is the father of three girls: Zakiya, Nthabi, and Refilwe. He and Nandi retain residences in both Los Angeles and South Africa.