How many times do you read the story of a man whose melody and concept is globally celebrated yet died dirt-poor, leaving his wife without much to even get him a gravestone?
And it was not because he went on spending sprees living the ultimate popstar’s life. He actually got paid 10 shillings in 1952, something around 87 cents in today’s money.
This is the uniquely harrowing story of South African Soloman Linda, the original writer of Mbube, commercially significant as The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Under several layers of boardroom decisions and studio takes, Linda’s authorship of the famous “Wimoweh” song was lost song until about 40 years after his death.
Linda was born to a cattle-rearing Zulu family in Pomeroy, Natal in pre-apartheid South Africa in 1909. He was educated at a mission school, where he picked up lessons in Western music apart from the usual English language and arithmetic.
After school, there was not much for him to do in his small village. His options were menial tasks and Linda felt Johannesburg held more and better opportunities.
About a century ago, Johannesburg held promise. It was a mining town that needed miners, usually young men who had left villages in search of pleasant lives.
Linda found a job with a furniture shop, the Mayi Mayi. And then later with the Carlton Hotel, where the love of music and the need for quid moved Linda to form a singing group.
Five other young men from Pomeroy came together with Linda to form the Evening Birds. More specifically, it was Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds.
They sang at weddings, parties and anywhere Linda’s falsetto and lyrical ingenuity were required.
Rian Malan wrote for Rolling Stone about Linda and his friends: “Within two years they turn themselves into a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes.”
They were even credited with inventing the genre of isicathamiya, an acapella-styled sound founded in the vein of Zulu musical and dance culture.
Mbube was birthed as part of the group’s repertoire. Malan even claims that the song was not initially written; Solomon practically freestyled into existence, one of the greatest songs of the 20th century.
“He hadn’t composed the melody or written it down or anything. He just opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of fifteen notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus…,” writes Malan.
It was recorded in South Africa and polished in the UK and the song became an immediate hit in both countries and in Europe.
What followed from this point is the history of one successful record with a thousand false fathers. And it affected the integrity of the song.
The Zulu word “mbube” stands for lion. In his song, Linda was saying, “mbube zimbe”, meaning “Lion, stop!”. It is said the inspiration for these words came as a result of cattle-herding, an arguable rite of passage for Zulu boys who had to protect their cows from lions.
The song remained as Linda had recorded it until American folk singer, Pete Seeger listened to it and thought he heard “wimoweh” instead of “mbube zimbe”.
Seeger and his group. the Weavers, re-recorded the song in 1952, singing it their way but Linda was not credited. Seeger would later claim that after he knew of the original composer, he sent a $1000 to Linda through Eric Gallo.
Gallo of Gallo Records, the studio that had recorded the song in Africa, then approached Linda with an offer. For those 10 shillings and a job as a janitor in the Gallo studios, Linda was convinced to hand over the rights to the song.
The most identifiable and popular rendition of Mbube was done in 1961, by George David Weiss who was commissioned to add lyrics to the acapella chant.
The Tokens sang Weiss’ lyrics and it was an instant hit. Between 1961 and the 90s, the song will be covered by big names to chart-topping appreciations.
Miriam Makeba, Jimmy Cliff, Jimmy Dorsey Yma Sumac among others, all have their versions of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. But perhaps, in modern times, our coming to celebrate this song was thanks to Disney’s stage musical and animated film. The Lion King.
Abilene Music Group, which owned the worldwide rights to the song, licensed Disney to use it. Again, Linda was not credited.
Linda died a poor man in 1962. Two of his children had already died before him, reportedly out of malnutrition, perhaps, revealing more than anything, the depth of his poverty.
It was only in 2000 that Malan’s piece in Rolling Stone awakened international attention to the genealogy of the song. In 2004, Disney was sued by Linda’s family, backed by Gallo Records and the South African government, for compensation of royalties.
Disney agreed to a settlement, and so did Abilene Music Group in 2006. The figures are not known to the world but apart from lump sums, the companies agreed to annual disbursements until the end of 2017.
However, the rights to the song is still not in the estates of Linda. And as a recent Rolling Stone report revealed, the family will receive nothing except royalties for the placement of Mbube in the latest installation of The Lion King which features Beyoncé and Donald Glover.
So much for a lion’s share.