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The Lion Sleeps Tonight

June 6, 2019

‘Once upon a time – a long, long time ago – a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone in the very first recording studio in Africa and sung 13 notes that went on to earn more than $16 million USD. Almost none of which came back to him and his descendants after he died.’

In fact, it wasn’t until a decade ago that I was amazed to discover the truth about the real author of the song when I watched The Lion’s Trail, a documentary that recounted the backstory to this controversial story, by South African filmmaker Francois Verster. The documentary, inspired by an article featured in Rolling Stone magazine by Riaan Malan, the author of the bestselling My Traitor’s Heart, told a tale of cultural misappropriation with countless American artists and behemoth Disney Studios, making millions off a Zulu artist who died a pauper. Riaan himself had been unaware of the song’s genealogy but had taken it up as something of a moral crusade after South African music legend Jonny Clegg alerted him to the origins of the song. I felt similarly outraged when I first heard the story and was reminded of it once more a few weeks ago when Netflix aired The Lion’s Share, a retelling and follow-up of the debacle, directed by Sam Cullum.

The origins of the song go back to 1939 when Solomon Linda, a Zulu migrant worker, recorded the original ‘Mbube’ song (meaning Lion in Zulu) in Johannesburg. By day Solomon worked at Johannesburg’s Carlton Hotel and by night he was the soprano singer in a male choral group called The Evening Birds, who sang at weddings in their pin striped suits, bowler hats and two-tone shoes. Such was the success of ‘Mbube’ that it went on to sell a staggering 100,000 copies in South Africa alone, making Solomon a legend amongst Zulu’s. It also attracted the attention of local record label Gallo Records who bought the rights for a scant 10 shillings from Solomon and promptly employed him as a menial record packer in their factory. No doubt, to keep their newfound prodigy close at hand.

Their instinct was spot-on, for within two decades, Solomon Linda’s song went on to spawn an entire genre of African music that today is known as isicathamiya or mbube-style. In fact, Joseph Shabalala of the award-winning, Ladysmith Black Mambazo group has on many occasions paid homage to Solomon Linda as the father of the genre. And that’s where it may have all ended were it not for the genius and universality of Solomon Linda’s tune.

It is said that the song arrived in New York in the early 1950s as part of a package of records sent to American musicologist Alan Lomax. No one was interested in the package but somehow ‘Mbube’ landed in the hands of folk singer Peter Seeger who released a version of it in 1952 that he called ‘Wimoweh’ in reference to the misheard Zulu chant of ‘uyimbube, uyimbube’, meaning ‘he is a lion’. Not only did his version make it to the Top 10 in the US but was re-released a decade later by the Brooklyn-based group The Tokens, who took it to number one globally, even in South Africa. Ironically, at the same time as Solomon Linda was dying of kidney failure, enjoying none of the vast wealth garnered by his masterpiece.

A year later South African singer Miriam Makeba sang her version of the song at JFK’s 1962 birthday party while the Apollo astronauts were reported to have listened to it in the run-up to their take-off at Cape Canaveral. Over the years it was covered countless times over by everyone from Glen Campbell to Brian Eno to REM, but it was its inclusion in Disney’s blockbuster movie, The Lion King in 1994 that saw it achieve immortal status as one of the most famous songs in the world. Or as Riaan Malan put it so brilliantly in his article for Rolling Stone magazine: ‘It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, 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.’

The outcome of Riaan’s attempts and eventual success to get Disney to compensate Solomon Linda’s family is an epic transcultural saga best left to Netflix’s   – The Lion’s Share to explain. For my part, it does little to appease the sense of injustice around the shameless plagiarizing of his masterpiece, thanks to the vagaries of copyright law and powerful mass media corporations. But it does certainly put to right, some eighty years after he first recorded it, that Solomon Linda’s name is forever more attached to his masterpiece.

The Netflix film: Remastered: The Lion’s Share is currently showing and is worth seeing to gain perspective of where and how this masterpiece came to be.

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