by Kathy Warnes
Solomon Linda’s song, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, transcends racial, cultural, and time lines Solomon Linda’s song eventually earned millions of dollars, but he died in such poverty that it took his family 18 years to buy a tombstone for his grave.Like most sagas, the story of Solomon Popoli Linda and his most famous song, “Mbube,” which means lion, and ultimately became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” has many twists and turns. Solomon ‘s creative imagination combined a Zulu refrain that sounded like “wimoweh” to English speaking ears, with his own boyhood experiences chasing away lions that stalked the family cattle.
Solomon Linda Starts Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds
Born in the Msinga rural area of Zululand, Solomon received his schooling at the Gordon Memorial Mission School in the South African village of Msinga. While he was at school, ragtime, a new kind of American syncopated music introduced by African American composer Scott Joplin that had been popular since the 1880s, swept across South Africa.
Popular African American vocalist Orpheus McAdoo and his group, The Virginia Jubilee Singers, performed at Gordon Memorial School and inspired Solomon to incorporate the exciting new music into the Zulu songs that he and his friends sang at weddings and feasts.
In the mid 1930s, Solomon moved to Johannesburg, at that time a city of gold mines that required a steady supply of laborers. Solomon worked in his uncle’s furniture store and eventually he started a vocal group called Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds. They performed at weddings and choir competitions, growing into a popular urban act.
Solomon Improvises “Mbube” in the Recording Studio
A talent scout discovered Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds in 1938, and the group recorded several songs in Eric Gallo’s recording studios, at that time the only recording studio in Sub-Saharan Africa. Solomon improvised “Mbube” and shortly after he recorded the song, he sold the rights to the Gallo Record Company for less than two dollars. Since South Africa was still a British Colony, British laws said that the rights should have reverted to Solomon’s heirs 25 years after his death in 1962.
Like his American counterpart Scott Joplin with ragtime, Solomon Linda introduced several musical innovations that shaped a music genre. Migrant Zulu workers like Solomon developed Isicathamiya, which is a type of secular acappella singing in South Africa. Solomon used several bass singers instead of one singer per voice part. He introduced the falsetto lead voice, incorporating female vocal texture into male singing, but also retaining the bass parts that marked traditional choral music.
Although “Mbube” is Solomon’s best known and best selling song, he wrote and recorded many others and some of them serve as historical and musical documentation for the humiliation that black South Africans had to endure. By 1949, “Mbube” had sold over 100,000 copies and made Solomon a star in South Africa.
Pete Seeger Renames “Mbube”
In the mid-Twentieth Century, the world music industry embraced Isicathamiya and it became popular outside of Africa. American musicologist Alan Lomax discovered the original South African recording of “Mbube” and he gave it to his friend Pete Seeger, who was a folk musician and belonged to a group called the Weavers.
Pete Seeger renamed the song “Wimoweh: and the Weavers recorded a studio version of it in 1952, which became a hit in the United States. In 1957, the Weavers recorded a live version of “Wimoweh” in Carnegie Hall and it became a folk music classic. The Carnegie Hall version of “Wimoweh” inspired songwriter George Weiss who extensively rewrote it and called it “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Peter Seeger sent a check for $1,000 to Solomon Linda and continued to publicly credit him as the songwriter.
“Mbube” Lives on as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“
Although “Mbube” made Solomon Linda a popular performer in South Africa, he received little compensation beyond Pete Seeger’s check. After collapsing on stage in 1959, Solomon was diagnosed with kidney disease and he died on October 8, 1962.
Solomon Linda’s song didn’t die with him. Whether it is called “Mbube,” “Wimoweh,” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” over 150 artists have recorded the song, including the Kingston Trio, The Tokens, Robert John, Tight Fit, Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Campbell, Miriam Makeba, and Chet Atkins. Many films including “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” and “The Lion King” have featured the song. South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone Magazine in 2000, telling Solomon Linda’s story and estimating that his song had earned $15 million American dollars for its use in “The Lion King” alone.
“Mbube” Finally Brings Solomon Linda Good Luck
In 2004, the South African government and Gallo records backed a lawsuit that Solomon Linda’ descendants brought in South Africa against The Walt Disney company for its use of his song in “The Lion King” movie and stage musical without paying royalties to them. In February 2006, Solomon Linda’s heirs settled the lawsuit, but his estate didn’t receive substantial royalties from “Mbube” until recently.
Solomon Linda wrote in the original “Mbube”, “every morning you bring us good luck.” His song has finally brought him and his heirs good luck.
African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance, Veit Erlmann, University of Chicago Press, 1991
In Township Tonight!: South African’s Black City Music and Theatre, Second Edition, David B. Coplan, University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Solomon Linda Biography. Craig Harris, All Music Guide. AOL Music. Retrieved March 10, 2010.