The United States Navy Band singing in isiZulu! Now that’s one for the books. I must say that there is a moment of surprise when Rachel Malone Sarracco, dressed in immaculate navy whites, sings the opening isiZulu call from The Lion King’s Circle of Life. Then again, which Lion King fan hasn’t tried their hand at the iconic opening lines originally sung by Lebo M.
With practice, I’m sure some fans get it more or less phonetically acceptable. The bigger surprise is when the Navy choir responds in isiZulu, while Chief Musician Sarracco and Musician 1st Class Danlie Cuenca share the lead vocals, also in isiZulu. The isiZulu introduction lasts over a minute before the song segues into the Western pop section composed by Tim Rice and Elton John.
As you’ve seen, Circle of Life is followed by He Lives in You, with the lead sung by Chief Musician Shana Sullivan, but this is less remarkable than The Circle of Life not least because there is less Zulu. With The Circle of Life, it’s one thing for Sarracco to learn to pronounce the opening couplet in isiZulu, but Sarracco, Cuenca and the choir had to memorise a fair bit. It’s a good thing the piece is largely free of the clicks that can make learning Zulu and Xhosa tricky to master.
So how does the US Navy band cope with isiZulu? Sihle Magubane comments: “As a Zulu person, I have to applaud. You would not believe the amount of butchering of words that happens in South African private schools, Lion King productions etc that refuse to learn how to pronounce. It takes effort, but you wouldn’t dare butcher an Italian aria.” Radio Talk-show host Refilwe says she can hear the odd mispronounced word, “but so what.” Here is another song that combines Western and Zulu music:
That, of course, is Paul Simon with a band that included top South African musicians, including the vocal talent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It’s from the seminal 1986 Paul Simon album, Graceland. Many music fans will remember that Graceland was initially condemned as cultural appropriation and a breach of the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa.
This criticism lost much of its impact when Paul Simon toured the album with a large cast of South African musicians, including the exiled anti-apartheid activists Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. When the Graceland tour reached South Africa’s neighbour Zimbabwe, thousands of South Africans crossed the border to see the still-exiled Masekela & Makeba, and the rest of the show.
I mention this because the US Navy Band recorded The Lion King tracks in 2019, when Donald Trump was President and when the Black Lives Matter movement was at its most intense. Inevitably the US Navy Band caught some flack, especially after the South-African-born US TV-talk-show-host Trevor Noah tweeted in response to the video: “”When white people take “being an ally” too far. 😂” This line of thought was picked up on Twitter in South Africa to the extent that the above-mentioned radio talk-show host, Refilwe, caused a stir when she jumped to the defense of the Navy Band’s Circle of Life, which she described as “a beautiful rendition of that song.” She added, “Sometimes we are caught wanting to hate that navy choir because it happens to be almost all white singing an African song because it happens to be a navy under the Trump administration. People that posted that video were trying to get people to react and say how dare they, that’s appropriation because they know the trigger points.”
I have no wish to pursue these issues on the Music Man, other than to reiterate that Circle of Life was written by Elton John, with lyrics by Tim Rice, except for the Zulu introduction by Lebo M and to note that The Lion King (1994) and its sequels & offshoots have a massive international audience.
The US Navy Band video has 5,5M views. I’ve mentioned Miriam Makeba and I’ve mentioned the difficulty of mastering Nguni-language clicks. Here is fantastic historic footage of Makeba with the Xhosa wedding song popularly known as The Click Song. It would be interesting to hear the US Navy Choir attempt this!