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The Music of The Lion King

In its early development The Lion King was actually titled King of the Jungle until they realized that there are no lions living in the jungle. It also wasn’t originally intended to be a musical. It was almost supposed to be more like an animated National Geographic special. At the time, the movie Pocahontas was also in production at the Disney Studios and that was the movie that everyone thought was going to be the big blockbuster. That’s the movie that had all the A team while The Lion King really was the B team. No one saw this coming as a hit.

One day executive producer Thomas Schumacher was having lunch with musical lyricist Tim Rice who was fresh off his work on Disney’s recent successful animated film Aladdin, and he asked him if The Lion King could ever be a musical. Tim Rice replied that anything could be a musical! Tim Rice joined the production and ut was he who was responsible for then suggesting to bring in Elton John to write the music to go along with his lyrics. He told Disney that while he thought Elton John would be amazing, he said it didn’t matter because they’ll never get him as he was too busy and too expensive. Elton John explained that he didn’t need to be sold on the project, he embraced the challenge of doing something different and was on board from the word “go.”

When writing the tunes or the melodies to go with the lyrics that Tim Rice had already been writing, Elton John insisted on having all the lyrics first. So he was almost taking poems and putting them to music. Elton John explained that he needed to hear all the words first to really understand the message and the story, then and only then could he write a tune that was appropriate to carry those lyrics.

So they had their lyricist. They had demo melodies coming in from Elton John. Now the movies creators needed someone to take the tunes, and create a full motion picture soundtrack. The head of Disney Music at the time, Chris Montan, had a certain sound in mind that he kept coming back to over and over, and that was from the 1992 movie The Power of One.

The composer of that soundtrack was none other than Hans Zimmer. Hans Zimmer will be familiar to audiences for his work on Gladiator, The Dark Knight, The Crown, and Disney’s Pirate’s of the Caribbean.

Hans Zimmer had no interest in doing the Lion King when he was first approached, but ultimately he saw the opportunity to work on an animated movie as something he could share with his six year old daughter, Zoe.

So now it seemed their musical Trifecta was complete to create this Africa-inspired movie. German composer Hans Zimmer joined Elton John and Tim Rice, both from the United Kingdom. Yet there was something missing – An African. In order to bring to this Africa-inspired movie to life Hans Zimmer wanted to bring in Lebo M, a South African singer/songwriter he had worked with in the past on previous films. He had the perfect voice for the film. The problem was Lebo M. had hit some hard times and no one knew where he was. In fact, at the time he had been parking cars in L.A. to make ends meet.

In his initial thoughts for the soundtrack, Hans Zimmer was only considering using only African choirs and percussion in the soundtrack. For this Africa-based movie he didn’t see the point of booking an orchestra. But as he further understood the depth and seriousness of the story, he realized that he needed the emotional power of an orchestra to combine with the native percussion and choirs to deliver the soundtrack. Though he still doesn’t have his friend Lebo M. he pressed on with his orchestration of the movie.

One day he invited the film’s producers and other leadership on the movie over to his studio to listen to some of the demo tracks he had put together for the movie. On the day the Disney producers were at Hans’ studio, who popped by just to say hello along with two of his friends? Lebo M.

The first thing Lebo wanted to know was what was the movie about. They explained to him that it was a story about a young lion who loses his father in tragic circumstances, and ultimately has to rise up to his responsibility as king. Lebo became very contemplative and walked away for a minute, took down a few notes, walked back and said “OK, I’m ready.”

Hans played the musical track and Lebo and his two friends with him started this chant, ‘Ingonyama ingwe’ enamabala.’

The producers, after hearing this chant section of the song huddled together in the corner to chat. At that point Has thought he was getting fired. Instead, the producers loved it and they wanted more.

It was all coming together. Lebo M gave the film authenticity. It was a person from africa telling us what it’s like, rather than a bunch of Disney creatives telling us what they think Africa is like.

Now the producers needed a cry. They wanted something to beckon the animals of the African plain to Pride Rock. Lebo M. Himself took that job on board famously opening up the film.

So what do these chants mean?

The first chant the producers heard was the Zulu chant that works as an underliner in the score. “Ingonyama ingwe’ enamabala” and it repeats. It’s literal translation is “Lion, Leopard, Open Space.”

Why would they pick these words? Languages don’t always translate so well literally and it must be understood that there is Zulu meaning attached to these words. The idea that a lion and a leopard, who generally don’t get along very well (in fact leopards are known to try to attack and eat young lion cubs), are being invited into this open space, along with all the other animals that generally are meals for both lions and leopards, symbolizes a truce happening among the animals. All the animals and their enemies are being called into the open space, which they wouldn’t normally do together, to bow down, put aside their differences, and see the new king.

What about the first opening cry? “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba/Sithi uhm ingonyama.” Literally, the line says “Here it is, a lion is coming, father.” The more common Zulu word for lion is actually not ingonyama, it’s inhubesi. When the word ingonyama is used it’s less “a lion is coming.” it’s “THE Lion is coming.” In English the Lion is offered referred to as The King. When the Zulu are using ingonyama, they too are using this to describe someone much more important than any old lion, but THE Lion, The king. So it’s less, “a lion is coming, father,” and more “A king is coming, father.”

The word Nants also indicates something greater than just Look. A literal translation here comes off as mundane, “Look a Lion.” But a deeper look into these lyrics and their meaning reads “Behold, the lion king, father.” The translation to Behond rather than Look conveys a much more elevated meaning.

“Siyo Nqoba (baba)” The literal Zulu translation here is “We Will Win, father.” The use of the word baba, or father punctuates all of these lines. Over and over the vocalist is calling out to a father. Could this be God? Could it be Mufasa? It’s unmistakable that a father is being called upon. “We will win” seemingly has an odd place here after saying “a king is coming,” but again this could be a function of translation. An easy switch from win to overcome gives this a whole new level of gravity. It’s uncertain exactly what these lyrics mean, it could be a foreshadowing of the trials to come in the story. “A king is coming, father, we will overcome.” No matter what, when the producers and directors of the movie first heard what Lebo M. had described in these chants, they said that he immediately understood the heart of the film. Though English doesn’t neatly translate these words as well as we might like, it’s clear that behind these seemingly simple lyrics, there is a message that carries a lot of weight and conveys the true heart of this film.

They needed a vocalist for the rest of the song who could sell this opening anthem. They considered the likes of Seal, Janet Jackson, and even Harry Belafonte to sing “Circle of Life.” Ultimately, they realized that no one could exceed the passion and authenticity they already had in the studio demo singer, Carmen Twille. She thought she had just sung the demo track, but the producers wanted it to be her and so she provided those legendary vocals.

Hans Zimmer wanted to push the boundary of what the audience expected to hear from a movie about Africa. When seeing Africa one shouldn’t only just hear the drums and Zulu choirs, but the music of the drums and choirs could combine with the power of the orchestra to create something unique, yet universally understandable.

Zimmer had an idea to work with Zulu warrior tribes for the choral and African instrument work. However, during his research he found quickly that these warrior tribes didn’t have any indigenous instruments – because they were warriors. Warriors don’t waste time hauling around pianos and other instruments. With Lebo M’s advice they started bringing in drums from Senegal, Burundi, and other places and it started to create this pan-African sound that drew upon various different peoples and cultures from all around Africa.

Zimmer was handed a difficult task scoring the various emotional scenes for this Shakespearean plot. He would stay up very late into the night listening to music to inspire him to find the right sounds for the scenes he was writing. For example, when Mufasa dies, there isn’t much dialogue. The story is really told at that point through the visuals and the soundtrack. Zimmer needed to express the gravity and sadness of the death of a father, while at the same time not making it a horrifying experience in a children’s movie. One late night he was up listening to Brahms’ Requiem while trying to find the right tone to inspire him for the Mufasa death scene. It was that night that Hans Zimmer realized he was not only writing this soundtrack for his daughter Zoe, but also for his father, who had also died at young age.

The track “Hakuna Matata” was not originally intended for the film. The original song “Warthog Rhapsody,” also penned by Elton John and Tim Rice, was meant to be the duet featuring Timon and Pumbaa, the movie’s comedic duo meerkat and warthog. The Song ultimately evolved into “Hakuna Matata,” which is Swahili for “No trouble.”

“Be Prepared” is the the anthem for Scar, the movie’s bad guy. During production with Hans Zimmer and Jeremy Irons working through the song, the film’s creators urged Zimmer to make the piece more Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was a German who created the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. The imagery in the song echoes the movie with Scar perched high above rows of marching hyenas reflecting Adolf Hitler, while beams of light can be seen shining upward resembling the Cathedral of Light featured in many of the Nuremberg rallies.

Jeremy Irons is credited as the lead vocal in the piece, but in 2012 Jim Cummings (of Reflections of Earth fame) and who also voiced the Hyena Ed, stated that it was in fact he who sang most of the track while Jeremy Irons only performed some of the speaking portions. However, footage from the film’s recording sessions available on the 2017 Blu-ray release reveals that Irons did sing the entire first verse of the song. It is clear (thanks to a subtle but discernible shift in the vocals heard in Scar’s lead vocal) that Cummings performed the final verse. Jim Cummings confirmed this in interviews, claiming that he sang this last verse due to Irons developing vocal problems during the recording session.

“I just Can’t Wait To Be King” performs an important role in the film. While it might seem playful, it describes the assumption that with age or power, comes a certain amount of freedom. Rather, it foreshadows that often with age and power, come great responsibility, a major lesson of this whole story, told through the playful lyrics sung by Simba and Nala in their youth.

The original motion picture soundtrack is not the only music to appear in the film.  The use of the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in a scene with Timon and Pumbaa led to disputes between Disney and the family of South African composer Solomon Linda, who wrote the song (originally titled “Mbube”) in 1939. In July 2004 Linda’s family filed suit, seeking $1.6 million in royalties from Disney. In February 2006, Linda’s heirs reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney for an undisclosed amount of money. The song, originally made famous in America by The Tokens, returned in the live-action remake of The Lion King, performed by Lebo M, under its original Solomon Linda title, “Mbube.”

The lion king won two academy awards in 1995 BOTH music related. Three of its songs were nominated for Best Music Original Song: “Circle of Life”, “Hakuna Matata”, and the winner, “Can you Feel the Love Tonight.” It also won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

Elton John’s pop version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” became the bestselling single of 1994. It also earned Elton John the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. It was originally intended to be sung by only Timon and Pumbaa, who start off the song. Elton John protested that idea saying it was meant to follow “Disney’s tradition of great love songs,” and that it could “express the lions’ feelings for each other far better than dialogue could.” Ultimately it was sung by an off-screen voice, that of Kristle Edwards.

The Movie also took home the academy award for Best Music, Original Score, by Hans Zimmer. It is the only soundtrack for an animated film to be certified Diamond (10× platinum) by the Recording Industry Association of America.

The Lion King remains popular with audiences even today having a sequel, a Broadway show, and the live action remake that came out just this year. Its music can be found in countless Disney theme park shows and attractions including World of Color, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Mickey’s Soundsational Parade, Festival of the Lion King, Disney IllumiNations, and Disneyland Forever among many others.

For being assumed he would be too busy and too expensive, for his part Elton John described his work on The Lion King  as “one of the happiest experiences of my life.”


Watch the full segment on  The Music of the Lion King on EarzUp Podcast:

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