Mbube: Linda’s Lion sleeps at last

This is a story about numbers: 10 shillings, US$15-million, 70 years, over 160 covers and three centuries of continuous radio air play. It’s the story of a song we all know, the impoverished Zulu migrant worker who wrote it, the musicians and record companies who raked in millions for it, and the almost 70 years it has taken for his family to see justice done.

The song is Mbube, produced by Zulu musician Solomon Linda in 1939. It’s estimated that Linda received a total of 10 shillings for the song. Yet the tune went on to become Pete Seeger’s runaway hit Wimoweh, then the Tokens’ The Lion Sleeps Tonight, on to at least 160 covers, before ending up in the voices of Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog characters in Disney’s classic movie and Broadway hit The Lion King.

Along the way, it is said to have earned some US$15-million (R90-million) in royalties – but not for Linda. The musician died in 1962 with less than R100 in his bank account. His widow couldn’t afford a headstone for his grave.

Solomon Linda and the Evening Bird
Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds in 1941. From left, Solomon Linda (soprano), Gilbert Madondo (alto), Boy Sibiya (tenor), Samuel Mlangeni (bass) and Owen Skakane (bass). (Image: The International Library of African Music at Rhodes University and Veit Erlmann )

In February 2006, Linda’s legacy finally received some justice. After a six-year battle his surviving daughters Delphi, Elizabeth and Fildah, who had claimed almost R10-million from copyright holder Abilene Music, settled their dispute for an undisclosed sum. The settlement involves back payment of royalties to the family and the right to receive future payments for worldwide use.

The basis for the family’s case was the Dickens Provision, which stipulates that 25 years after a creator’s death, all rights should revert to the heirs, who would then be entitled to renegotiate deals and secure better royalty terms.

The Dickens Provision was inserted into the Copyright Act of Great Britain – and its former colonies – in the early 20th century after outrage that the works of Charles Dickens were generating huge profits for publishing companies while his family was destitute.

Enter Rolling Stone

“The settlement came about as a result of pressure from various sectors of society, both in South Africa and overseas,” family lawyer Hanro Friedrich told Business Day at the time of the settlement.

It’s unlikely that this pressure would have come to bear if it hadn’t been for Rian Malan, South African journalist and author of the bestselling My Traitor’s Heart.

In 2000 Malan delved deep into the story of Solomon Linda and his remarkable song for Rolling Stone magazine, producing a four-part expose that brought world attention to the song and the injustice done to Linda and his family.

It was Malan who, after consulting widely with experts on music copyright, came up with the $15-million royalties estimate.

“It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa,” Malan says of Mbube, “a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows.

“[I]t mutated into a truly immortal pop epiphany that soared to the top of the charts here and then everywhere, again and again, returning every decade or so under different names and guises.

“Navajo Indians sing it at pow-wows. Japanese teenagers know it as TK . It has been recorded by artists as diverse as REM and Glen Campbell, Brian Eno and Chet Atkins, the Nylons and schlockmeister Bert Kaempfert. The New Zealand army band turned it into a march. England’s 1986 World Cup soccer squad turned it into a joke. Hollywood put it in Ace Ventura Pet Detective.

“It has logged nearly three centuries of continuous radio air play in the US alone.”

Syncopated Zulu music in Msinga

Solomon Linda grew up in the Msinga in the heartland of rural Zululand. A typical rural kid of the time, he herded cattle and attended the Gordon Memorial mission school. But he was also strongly influenced by the new syncopated music that had swept across South Africa from the US since the 1880s, working it into the Zulu songs he and his friends sang at weddings and feasts.

In the 1930s Linda joined the stream of young African men who left their homesteads to find menial work in Johannesburg, a sprawling gold-mining town hungry for cheap labour.

“Life is initially very perplexing,” Malan says. “Solly keeps his eyes open and transmutes what he sees into songs that he and his home boys perform a capella on weekends.

“He has songs about work, songs about crime, songs about how banks rob you by giving you paper in exchange for real money, songs about how rudely the whites treat you when you go to get your pass stamped. People like the music.”

How much was ten shillings?

How much was ten shillings? One shilling was 12 pence and 10 shillings half a pound. In 1939, the year Mbube was recorded, the government estimated a black urban family needed at least 37 shillings and sixpence a week simply to survive. So Solomon Linda was paid roughly one quarter of what one black family needed to survive for one week in Joburg in 1939 – for a song that earned others $15-million.

Linda’s popularity grew, and in 1938 he and his band the Evening Birds – “a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes” – were spotted by a talent scout. They were taken to sub-Saharan Africa’s only recording studio – owned by Italian Eric Gallo, the founder of Gallo Records – to cut a number of songs.

Visited by angels

In 1939, during the band’s second recording session, Linda was “visited by angels”, Malan says. He opened his mouth and produced a three-chord song with lyrics something like “Lion! Ha! You’re a lion!”, inspired by boyhood memories of chasing lions stalking the family cattle. The song was called Mbube, Zulu for “lion”.

“The third take was the great one,” Malan writes of that recording session, “but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words:

“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.”

At the time, payment for record deals was primitive. Unknown acts signed no contracts and received no royalties. They were given what the record company determined their work was worth and that was it. Malan estimates that Linda was paid about 10 shillings for the song. All the subsequent income Mbube derived – in its first incarnation – went straight into the pockets of Eric Gallo.

The song did pretty well for itself. Released on 10-inch 78rpm records, it went on sale as Hitler invaded Poland, and slowly picked up a sizeable following. By 1948 Mbube had sold some 100 000 copies in South Africa, requiring so many pressings that the master eventually disintegrated.

Solomon Linda became a local superstar in the world of Zulu migrants. “He was the Elvis Presley of his time and place,” Malan says, “a shy, gangly 30-year-old, so tall that he had to stoop as he passed through doorways.” Working at a menial job in Gallo’s packing plant, he continued to perform until he collapsed on stage in 1959, struck down by kidney disease. He grew so sick he had to stop performing, and died on 8 October 1962 aged 53.

The proto-hippie and Senator McCarthy

At the time of Linda’s death, his song had already made it to the top of the US charts in two different incarnations: Wimoweh by Pete Seeger, and The Lion Sleeps Tonight by the Tokens.

But how did Mbube make it from the obscure black urban ghettoes of South Africa to the ears of hip American youth? The story goes that Pete Seeger’s friend Alan Lomax, the father of world music, rescued a package of 78 records brought from Africa that were about to be thrown away, thinking “God, Pete’s the man for these.”

Pete Seeger, the son of wealthy New York radicals, was “a proto-hippie”, Malan says – “save that he didn’t smoke reefer or even drink beer”. He was a socialist, a pacifist – until Hitler invaded Russia – and a folk musician who sang songs championing the common people. When Lomax brought him the records Seeger put the one with Mbube on the label on his old Victrola. “Golly,” he said. “I can sing that.”

“He was fascinated,” Malan writes. “There was something catchy about the underlying chant, and that wild, skirling falsetto was amazing.”

Seeger transcribed the song, but of course he couldn’t understand the Zulu coming from the hissing disk. So Linda’s line uyimbube – Zulu for “you’re the lion” and roughly pronounced “oo-yim-boo-beh” – came out the end of Seeger’s pen as “wimoweh”.

Wimoweh was recorded in 1951 by Seeger and his band the Weavers, in a version faithful to the Zulu original – apart from the lyrics, of course. “The true test lay in the singing,” Malan says, “and here Seeger passed with flying colours, bawling and howling his heart out, tearing his vocal chords so badly that by the time he reached 75 he was almost mute.”

Wimoweh was a hit, named a pick of the week by Billboard and reaching number six on the charts. Variety called it “terrific!” Seeger himself said it became “just about my favourite song to sing over the next 40 years”.

But this was the era of McCarthy witch hunts, and Seeger’s politics made him an inevitable quarry of the commie-chasing House Un-American Affairs Committee. In Febuary 1952, just as Wimoweh made its chart debut, a former trade union colleague of Seeger’s named Harvey Matusow denounced the musician to the committee.

In “one of the looniest tales of the entire McCarthy era”, Malan says, Matusow testified that communists were “preying on the sexual weakness of American youth”. And he was willing to give names – one of which was Seeger.

The public reaction was immediate. The press went wild, Weavers’ shows and television appearances were cancelled, radio stations banned their records and Wimoweh tumbled off the charts.

Eating lions with the Tokens

But Solomon Linda’s song was too good to disappear. Throughout the 1950s it steadily accumulated covers – one by jazz legend Jimmy Dorsey – until pretty much everyone in the US knew the basic tune. Including up-and-coming Brooklyn boy-band the Tokens, who had secured a record deal with RCS Victor.

According to Malan they had been told by “some joker” at the South African consulate that the song was a Zulu hunting song with lyrics that translated as, “Hush, hush. If everyone’s quiet, we’ll have lion meat to eat tonight.” That wouldn’t work for a boy-band song, so the record company gave it to Juilliard-trained George Weiss for a rework.

Weiss “dismantled the song, excised all the hollering and screaming, and put the rest back together in a new way,” Malan writes. “The chant remained unchanged, but the melody – Solomon Linda’s miracle melody – moved to centre stage, becoming the tune itself, to which the new words were sung: ‘In the jungle, the mighty jungle .

The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a reworking of Wimoweh, which was a copy of Mbube. Solomon Linda was buried under several layers of pop-rock stylings, but you could still see him beneath the new song’s slick surface, like a mastodon entombed in a block of clear ice.”

There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for the song, and it was released as the B side of a mundane song called Tina, which went nowhere. But The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a hit, reaching number one in November 1961, and is the only song for which the Tokens are remembered.

From that moment, there was no stopping Mbube. By April 1962 it was topping the charts all over the world. South African exile Miriam Makeba sang it at John F Kennedy’s last birthday party. Apollo astronauts listened to it at Cape Canaveral.

“It was covered by the Springfields, the Spinners, the Tremeloes and Glen Campbell,” Malan writes. “In 1972 it returned to the charts . in a version by Robert John. Brian Eno recorded it in 1975. In 1982 it was back at number one in the UK, this time performed by Tight Fit.

“REM did it, as did the Nylons and They Might Be Giants. Manu Dibango did a twist version. Some Germans turned it into heavy metal. A sample cropped up on a rap epic titled “Mash up da Nation”. Disney used the song in “The Lion King .

“It’s more than sixty years old, and still it’s everywhere.”

Show me the money

Mbube is now edging towards the 70-year-old mark, and only now is Solomon Linda’s family seeing any real financial benefit. But how much has it earned over all those years, all those covers, for other people?

“I put the question to lawyers around the world, and they scratched their heads,” Malan says. “Around 160 recordings of three versions? Thirteen movies? Half a dozen TV commercials and a hit play? Number Seven on Val Pak’s semi-authoritative ranking of the most-beloved golden oldies, and ceaseless radio airplay in every corner of the planet?

“It was impossible to accurately calculate, to be sure, but no one blanched at $15 million. Some said 10, some said 20, but most felt that $15 million was in the ball park.”

It’s unlikely that Solomon Linda’s daughters will be seeing anything like that, but at least some justice has now been done. The court settlement means they will be able to escape the dire poverty under which the family has lived since their father’s death. The money will go into a trust, to be administered by SA Music Rights CEO Nick Motsatsi.

Linda wasn’t bitter that his song brought success to others. “He was happy,” his daughter Fildah told Malan. “He didn’t know he was supposed to get something.”

SAinfo reporter

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