With the first trailer for the live-action Lion King movie now released, the question everyone originally asked has returned: what do the lyrics to the opening son actually mean? We guarantee almost every fan will want to know, since translating the lyrics means you’ll never watch the Lion King‘s opening, or hear “The Circle of Life” the same way again.
There’s a bit more to unlocking the real ‘meaning’ of the first lines of the song and film than simply translating Zulu to English. In a movie dripping in African storytelling, royal intrigue, and classic Disney heroism and coming-of-age, the song is just as polished in its own rite. And considering how closely the new Lion King matches the original, a new generation will be just as stunned to hear its opening cries… and if history repeats itself, be desperate to know the translation of the words that follow.
So, if you’re ready to potentially have your mind blown, Lion King fans, prepare to learn the secret meaning of the movie’s opening song.
- This Page: Who Speaks The Opening Lines?
- Next Page: Simba’s Secret Promise to His Father
The Circle of Life’s Singer is Just as Important
First things first: toss the famous Broadway adaptation of “The Circle of Life” out of your head, since it frames the song as Rafiki’s voice. The truth is far better, too, since Lion King composer Hans Zimmer sought out his very own exiled son of Africa to give words to the film’s opening song. His only choice was South Africa’s “Lebo M.,” and when the movie’s directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff met him, the deal was sealed in minutes. Minkoff explained the encounter in the Making of The Lion King featurette:
The first question he asked us was ‘what is the movie about?’ And Roger and I explained to him, we said it’s a story about a young lion who loses his father in tragic circumstances, and ultimately has to rise up to his responsibility as king. And he got very thoughtful, and he walked away, and he started jotting notes on a piece of paper. Then he came back and he said, ‘OK, I’m ready’ – and it was all in African.
Hans played the musical track and Lebo and his two friends started this chant, the ‘Ingonyama ingwe’ enamabala.’ And it was just magic. It was unbelievable. And then later we said ‘well what does it mean?’ and when he explained the translation… he had found the heart of the movie.
With a tease like that, knowing what those lines translated to should be downright irresistible. So allow us to share the explanation for those very lines, which can be heard sung in Lebo M.’s own voice in the film’s opening.
The Circle of Life’s First Lines
“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba/Sithi uhm ingonyama”
Once the shock of seeing what syllables and words are actually being belted out over images of a savannah sunrise, the translation of both the first line, and the chorus’ response seems obvious. Literally, the line says “a lion is coming, father.” But instead of laughing at the seemingly mundane meaning, remember: translating the words isn’t the same as translating the idea being communicated. For starters, use Google and you’ll learn the Zulu word for a “lion” is ibhubesi, not ingonyama. That’s because the more fitting translation would be that “The Lion is coming, father,” which is also the word the Zulu use for king. So make that “A King is coming, father.”
The “nants” also raises the level of speech to a greater occasion or meaning, something close to “witness,” or “behold.” Fans can decide for themselves if the voice is metaphorically that of Simba speaking to Mufasa, either outside of the text or unspoken as he later rises to his destiny. It could also be one of the assembled animals speaking to their father as they travel to witness their future king. The response from the chorus is in agreement, so any reading of it works in accompaniment to the opening scene.
So yes, these lyrics pack a whole lot more meaning than a simple translation will give you. And if the tears aren’t welling up in your eyes for Simba already… then the next lines are going to do the job.
Page 2 of 2: The Next Lines: Simba’s Promise to Mufasa?
The Circle of Life’s First Promise
“Siyo Nqoba (baba)”
The literal meaning here is once again saying that victory, or a “conquering” will be achieved. And while it isn’t listed in the official lyrics, it’s easy to hear Lebo M. repeat the use of “baba” in between the first and second verses of the song. After he utters this line (including the unmistakable Zulu glottoral “pop”) which translate to “we will conquer,” it sounds again like the ending of “Nqoba” masks another call out to the singer’s father. That makes the calling out to a father the cap on the first line, the second, and even this third one.
The translation is tricky even if the words are clear (check out the translation at Genius) given the connotations of war that “conquer” brings in English (the word “overcome” or “achieve” has no such negative angle). No matter the specifics, the addition of the father callout helps bring the opening segments of the song together in a way translated lines can’t. Together, the lines effectively say: “Behold a king is coming, father (the king). I will conquer, father (the king).”
And since the “I conquer” can also mean “we conquer” given the accompanying voices, it’s still possible to read these words as Simba’s, another animal’s, all the other animals combined–heck, why not Mufasa’s to his own father? Not hard to see why the directors felt Lebo M. understood the “heart” of Simba’s journey to king.
The Circle of Life’s Zulu Chant
“Ingonyama ingwe’ enamabala (repeat)”
The part which concludes the Zulu opening of “The Circle of Life” was actually the first to be sung, and the meaning of the “chant” is the most obscure for those looking only at the translation. Explicitly, the meaning is even more difficult to pin down, since it literally means “lion, leopard, open space.” Two pretty obscure animals to choose out of the dozens in the scene, and the shift from “king” to a literal lion is just as confusing. And why the open space? But to understand this one, you need to know a simple fact about African big cats: lions and leopards do NOT get along.
Most of the time leopards will keep their distance from lions, but are known to attack and kill lion cubs if they’re left unattended by their parents. Whether true or not, the idea that leopards choose to knowingly kill the young of their ‘enemies’ or kill a future threat takes hold among those who live near them. Add in the fact that leopards feed mostly on the animals gathered for Simba’s presentation in The Lion King‘s opening, and the meaning of the words is easier to grasp.
Lion, Leopard, in the open. Enemies making a truce, existing without threat – all in response to the future king’s arrival. and to those who have seen the movie, a son uniting a people in tribute to his father is the perfect way to open and close the story. In fact, now that we think about it, it could even be Simba’s son dreaming of being as mighty a king as his own father, after hearing this story at his side.
…we’re not crying. You’re crying.