Sunday, April 02, 2006

Mbube/Wimoweh/Lion Sleeps Tonight

Solomon Linda (l)

Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds: Mbube
from Mbube Roots: Zulu Choral Music from South Africa, 1930's-1960's (Rounder 1976)

The Weavers: Wimoweh
from Wasn't That A Time (Vanguard 1993)

The Tokens: The Lion Sleeps Tonight
from The Tokens (Victor 1961)

A grave musical injustice was recently rectified. In 1939 South African musician Solomon Linda recorded, according to journalist and author Rian Malan "the most famous melody to ever emerge from Africa." The song Mbube (pronounced eem-boo-bey) recorded with his vocal group the Evening Birds was filled with deep hypnotic chants, rhythmic wails and improvised melodies all of which caught on with local audiences and became such a hit that the title of the song is used to describe the genre of music it inspired and Solomon's fame among the Zulu migrants in South Africa rivaled that of Elvis in his heyday. As can be seen in the picture above, Solomon and his group were sharply dressed performers who played up the role of superstars and there were challengers to his throne. The group used to perform at local bars out-singing other groups and creating rivalries strong enough that it was said that Solomon died from a curse put on him by a rival group.

The song itself was released in 1939 and the lyrics come from the memory of Solomon's youth as a goat-herder chasing away lions. At the time of the recording in segregated South Africa Solomon received 10 shillings (about a dollar by todays standards) for his song and all subsequent monies including royalties went to the owner of the record company. Solomon Linda would live on until the 60's to hear his song be covered countless times (a fact of which he was proud) but to die in poverty. In the early 50's Pete Seeger heard the record from a friend and transcribed what he thought were the lyrics, turning Uyimbube to Wimoweh. With his controversial folk group they recorded the song as Wimoweh which would become one of their most popular songs. Seegers version is loud, pompous and awkwardly non-folksy with it's big band arrangement but it still managed to capture the rhythm and excitement of the original and faithfully kept the enthralling syncopation of the Zulu chants.

Even after their group broke up, succumbing to blacklisting during the McCarthy era the song still lived on in popularity, enough so that four Brooklyn kids would use it when they successfully auditioned for music producers. By this time, all ties to Solomon Linda were erased as the song was never copyrighted with song-writing credit going to the fictional Paul Campbell, an alias used to collect royalties from songs that the Weavers would take from other artists and public domain tunes. Seeger himself ceded his author royalties to Solomon Linda, but very little of the money went to him or his family. The four teens and their producers took the song and recorded it under the assumption that because it was supposedly based on an African chant that the rights for the song were open to anyone. The producers and a songwriter took credit for the song and had the Tokens record it as The Lion Sleeps Tonight. This song would become their most popular hit and is still widely recorded and played to this day. The song as recorded by the Tokens is bland and milquetoast when listened beside the previous two songs (the wimoweh chant loses all of it's vitality in the Tokens version) and the countermelody as sung by backup vocalist Anita Darian pushes the song towards kitsch. It's saving grace is the use of the unforgettable melody, a melody that Linda improvised and only used at the very end of the song and that the Weavers only played around with.

The song has now made a lot of money for a lot of people and according to Malan's research has earned about $15 million in royalties all of which should have gone to Linda but which none of it did. But recently Linda's surviving daughters (who are also living in poverty) had settled their case against the copyright holder and are to receive a undisclosed settlement from the back payment of royalties. The lion will finally sleep.

For all of the intimate details regarding the history of the song and the artists and producers involved, read Rian Malan's Rolling Stone article that helped open the lid on the injustices heaped upon the Linda family. Also NPR has an audio report on the settlement, a report that led to me posting about the story.


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