Internationally renowned SAfrican author Rian Malan has researched & written a remarkable expose for Rolling Stone magazine in the USA, on the murky side of music's international mainstream. It's about SAfrican singer-songwriter Soloman Linda - The man who recorded & composed Mbube (aka - The Lion Sleeps Tonight / Whimaway / In the Jungle, etc.).
Part 1 of a 3 part series that follows the fate of a great song-writer who 'sold' his soul & song to Gallo Africa
for a few Guinness - when technically & morally he should have
earned approx. $10 Million dollars (US)!!! Some say $15 Million for a
song that could have been to SAfrica what 'Waltzing Matilda' is to
Australia - Goodness forbid!! But you know what we mean... the fact is
that's how the American's & Europeans would listen to it if they
knew where it belonged. Many American & British composers have
claimed the copyright to MBUBE over the past 50 odd hidden years. It's
about time that we get to know a little of our own history & dig
our own roots. This all relates to the SA music in crisis article by Angus Kerr
and his contention that East Coast Radio and the other Top Forty
American Formatted Radio Stations in Africa need to show a little more
interest in where, and how, they live!
In The Jungle
Free Peoples Concert - Dancers 1971
--- it is one of the great musical mysteries of all time: How American
music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a
pauper. After six decades, the truth is finally told.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, a small miracle took
place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he
was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in
black Africa when it happened. 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 that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of bees
wax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a
very big hit in that part of Africa.
Later, the song took flight
and landed in America, where it 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 powwows. Japanese teenagers know it
as TK. ____________ Phish perform it live. Cybersurfers recognize it as
the theme song of a hugely popular British website. It has been
recorded by artists as diverse as R.E.M. 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 U.S. alone. 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.
Its epic transcultural saga is also, in a way, the story
of popular music, which limped pale-skinned and anaemic into the
twentieth century but danced out the other side vastly invigorated by
transfusions of ragtime and rap, jazz, blues and soul, all of whose
blood lines run back to Africa via slave ships and plantations and
ghettos. It was in the nature of this transaction that black men gave
more than they got and often ended up with nothing.
This one's for Solomon Linda, then, a Zulu who wrote a
melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that
his widow couldn't afford a stone for his grave. Let's take it from the
top, as they say in the trade.
Part I: A story about music
is an African yarn, but it begins with an unlikely friendship between
an aristocratic British imperialist and a world-famous American Negro.
Sir Henry Loch is a rising star of the Colonial Office. Orpheus McAdoo
is leader of the celebrated Virginia Jubilee Singers, a combo that
specializes in syncopated spirituals. They meet during McAdoo's
triumphant tour of Australia in the 1880s, and when Sir Henry becomes
High Commissioner of the Cape ////Colony a few years later, it occurs
to him that Orpheus might find it interesting to visit. Next thing,
McAdoo and his troupe are on the road in Africa, playing to slack-jawed
crowds in dusty mining towns.
This American music is a revelation to "civilized
natives", hitherto forced to wear starched collars and sing horrible
dirges under the direction of dour white missionaries. Mr. McAdoo is a
stern old Bible thumper, to be sure, but there's a subversively
rhythmic intensity in his music, a primordial stirring of funk and
soul. The African brothers have never heard such a thing. The tour [TWO
SEPARATE TOURS - totalling eight years, but the first] turns into a
five-year epic. Wherever Orpheus goes, "jubilee" music outfits spring
up in his wake and spread the glad tidings, which eventually penetrate
even the loneliest outposts of civilization.
One such place is Gordon Memorial School, perched on the
rim of a wild valley called Msinga, which lies in the Zulu heartland,
about 300 miles southeast of Johannesburg. Among the half-naked herd
boys who drift through the mission is a rangy kid called Solomon Linda,
born 1909, who gets into the Orpheus-inspired syncopation thing and
works bits of it into the Zulu songs he and his friends sing at
weddings and feasts.
In the mid-Thirties they shake off the dust and cow shit
and take the train to Johannesburg, city of gold, where they move into
the slums and become kitchen boys and factory hands. Life is initially
very perplexing. 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. Solly and his friends develop a following. Within two years
they turn themselves into a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped
suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes. They become Solomon Linda
and the Evening Birds, inventors of a music that will later become
known as isicathamiya, arising from the warning cry, "Cothoza, bafana"
- tread carefully, boys.
These were Zulus, you see, and their traditional dancing
was punctuated by mighty foot stompings that, when done in unison,
quite literally made the earth tremble. This was fine in the bush, but
if you stomped the same way in town, you smashed wooden floors, cracked
cement and sometimes broke your feet, so the whole dance had to be
restrained and moderated. Cognoscenti will recall Ladysmith Black
Mambazo's feline and curiously fastidious movements onstage. That's
In any event, there were legions of careful treaders in
South Africa's cities, usually Zulu migrants whose Saturday nights were
devoted to epic beer-fueled bacchanalias known as "tea meetings". These
were part fashion show and part heroic contest between rival a capella
gladiators, often with a stray white man pulled off the street to act
as judge and a cow or goat as first prize. The local black bourgeoisie
was mortified by these antics. Careful treaders were an embarrassment,
widely decried for their "primitive" bawling and backward lyrics, which
dwelled on such things as witchcraft, crime and using love potions to
get girls. The groups had names like the Naughty Boys or the Boiling
Waters, and when World War II broke out, some started calling
themselves 'mbombers, after the dive-bombing Stukas they'd seen on
newsreels. 'Mbombers were by far the coolest and most dangerous black
thing of their time.
Yes! Dangerous! Skeptics are referred to "Ngazula
Emagumeni" (on Rounder CD 5025), an early Evening Birds track whose
brain-rattling intensity thoroughly guts anyone who thinks of a capella
as smooth tunes for mellow people. The wild, rocking sound came from
doubling the bass voices and pumping up their volume, an innovation
that was largely Linda's, along with the high style and the new dance
moves. He was the Elvis Presley of his time and place, a shy, gangly
thirty-year-old, so tall that he had to stoop as he passed through
doorways. It's odd to imagine him singing soprano, but that was usually
his gig in the group: He was the leader, the "controller", singing what
Zulus called fasi pathi, a blood-curdling falsetto that a white man
might render as first part.
The Evening Birds were spotted by a talent scout in 1938
and taken to the top of an office building in downtown Jo'burg. There
they saw the first recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa, shipped out
from England by Eric Gallo, a jovial Italian who started in the music
business by selling American hillbilly records to working-class Boers.
Before long he bought his own recording machine and started churning
out those Dust Bowl ditties in local languages, first Afrikaans, then
Zulu, Xhosa and what have you. His ally in this experiment was
Griffiths Motsieloa, the country's first black producer, a refined
classicist who abhorred this cultural slumming. But what could he do?
The boss was determined to sell records to blacks. When Afro-hillbilly
failed to catch on, they decided to lay down some isicathamiya and take
a leap into the unknown.
Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds cut several songs
under Motsieloa's direction, but the one we're interested in was called
"Mbube", Zulu for "the lion", recorded at their second session, in
1939. It was a simple three-chord ditty with lyrics something along the
lines of, "Lion! Ha! You're a lion!" inspired by an incident in the
Birds' collective Zulu boyhood when they chased lions that were
stalking their father's cattle. The first take was a dud, as was the
second. Exasperated, Motsieloa looked into the corridor, dragooned a
pianist, guitarist and banjo player, and tried again.
The third take almost collapsed at the outset as the
unrehearsed musicians dithered and fished for the key, but once they
started cooking, the song was glory bound. "Mbube" wasn't the most
remarkable tune, but there was something terribly compelling about the
underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which
Solomon yodelled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally
making it up as he went along. The third take was the great one, 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.
Motsieloa must have realized he'd captured something special, because
that chunk of bees wax was shipped all the way to England and shipped
back in the form of ten-inch 78-rpm records, which went on sale just as
Hitler invaded Poland. Marketing was tricky, because there was hardly
any black radio in 1939, but the song went out on "the re-diffusion", a
land line that pumped music, news and "native affairs" propaganda into
black neighbourhoods, and people began trickling into stores to ask for
it. The trickle grew into a steady stream that just rolled on for years
and years, necessitating so many re-pressings that the master
disintegrated. By 1948, "Mbube" had sold in the region of 100,000
copies, and Solomon Linda was the undefeated and undefeatable champion
of hostel singing competitions and a superstar in the world of Zulu
Pete Seeger, on the other hand, was in a
rather bad way. He was a banjo player living in a cold-water flat on
MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village with a wife, two young children
and no money. Scion of wealthy New York radicals, he'd dropped out of
Harvard ten years earlier and hit the road with his banjo on his back,
learning hard-times songs for people in the Hoovervilles, lumber camps
and coal mines of Depression America. In New York he joined a band with
Woody Guthrie. They wore work shirts and jeans, and wrote folk songs
that championed the ___ common man in his struggle against capitalist
bloodsuckers. Woody had a slogan on his guitar that said, "This machine
kills fascists". Pete's banjo had a kinder, gentler variation: "This
machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender". He was a
proto-hippie, save that he didn't smoke reefer or even drink beer.
He was also a pacifist, at least until Hitler invaded
Russia. Scenting a capitalist plot to destroy the brave Soviet
socialist experiment, Pete and Woody turned gung-ho overnight and
started writing anti-Nazi war songs, an episode that made them briefly
famous. After that it was into uniform and off to the front, where Pete
played the banjo for bored GIs. Discharged in '45, he returned to New
York and got a gig of sorts in the public school system, teaching
toddlers to warble the half-forgotten folk songs of their American
heritage. It wasn't particularly glorious, the money was rotten, and on
top of that, he was sick in bed with a bad cold.
Came a knock on the door, and, lo, there stood his
friend Alan Lomax, later to be hailed as the father of world music.
Alan and his dad, John, were already famous for their song-collecting
forays into the parallel universe of rural black America, where they'd
discovered giants like Muddy Waters and Leadbelly. Alan was presently
working for Decca, where he'd just rescued a package of 78s sent from
Africa by a record company in the vain hope that someone might want to
release them in America. They were about to be thrown away when Lomax
intervened, thinking, "God, Pete's the man for these".
they were: ten shellac 78s, one of which said "Mbube" on its label.
Pete put it on his old Victrola and sat back. He was fascinated - there
was something catchy about the underlying chant, and that wild,
skirling falsetto was amazing.
"Golly", he said, "I can sing that". So he got out pen
and paper and started transcribing the song, but he couldn't catch the
words through all the hissing on the disk. The Zulus were chanting,
"Uyimbube, uyimbube", but it to Pete it sounded like, awimboowee or
maybe awimoweh, so that's how he wrote it down. Later he taught
"Wimoweh" to the rest of his band, the Weavers, and it became, he says,
"just about my favourite song to sing for the next forty years".
This was no great achievement, given that the Weavers'
repertoire was full of dreck like "On Top of Old Smoky" and
"Greensleeves". Pete will admit no such thing, but one senses he was
growing tired of cold-water flats and wanted a proper career, as
befitting a thirty something father of two. He toned down his politics
[REWORD, RE OUR CONVERSATION], excised references to dark sexual lusts
from Leadbelly standards, and threw some hokey cowboy songs into the
mix. He even allowed his wife to outfit the band in matching corduroy
jackets, a hitherto-unimaginable concession to showbiz, when they
landed a gig at the Village Vanguard.
The pay was $200 a week plus free hamburgers, and the
booking was for two weeks only, but something unexpected happened:
Crowds started coming. The gig was extended for a month, and then
another. The Weavers' appeal was inexplicable to folk purists, who
noted that most of their songs had been around forever, in obscure
versions by blacks and red necks who never had hits anywhere. What they
failed to grasp was that Seeger and his comrades had managed to filter
the stench of poverty and pig shit out of the proletarian music and
make it wholesome and fun for Eisenhower-era squares. Six months
passed, and the Weavers were still at the Vanguard, drawing sellout
crowds, including the odd refugee from the swell supper clubs of Times
One such figure was Gordon Jenkins, a sallow jazz cat
with a gigolo's mustache and a matinee idol's greased-back hairstyle.
Jenkins started out arranging for Benny Goodman before scoring a huge
hit in his own right with, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" an appalling
piece of crap. These days he was working with Frank Sinatra, and
holding down a day job as musical director at Decca Records. Jenkins
loved the Weavers, returning night after night, sometimes sitting
through two consecutive shows. He wanted to sign them up, but his
bosses were dubious. It was only when Jenkins offered to pay for the
recording sessions himself that Decca capitulated and gave the folkies
Their first recording came out in June 1950. It was
"Good night Irene", an old love song they'd learned off their friend
Leadbelly, and it was an immediate click, in the parlance of the day.
The flip side was an Israeli hora called "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", and it
clicked, too. So did "Roving Kind", a nineteenth-century folk ditty
they released that November, and even "On Top of Old Smoky", which hit
Number Two the following spring. The Weavers leapt from amateur
hootenannies to the stages of America's poshest night spots and
casinos. They wore suits and ties, Brylcreemed their hair, appeared on
TV and pulled down two grand a week. Chagrined and envious, their
former comrades on the left started sniping at them in magazines. "Can
an all-white group sing songs from Negro culture?" asked one.
The answer, of course, lay in the song that Seeger
called "Wimoweh". His version was faithful to the Zulu original in
almost all respects save for the finger-popping rhythm, which was
arguably a bit white for some tastes. ____ The true test lay in the
singing, and here Seeger passed with flying colours, bawling and
howling his heart out, tearing up his vocal cords so badly that by the
time he reached seventy-five he was almost mute. "Wimoweh" was by far
the edgiest song in the Weavers' set, which is perhaps why they waited
a year after their big breakthrough before recording it.
Like their earlier recordings, it took place with Gordon
Jenkins presiding and an orchestra in attendance. Prior to this,
Jenkins had been very subdued in his instrumental approach, adding just
the occasional sting and the odd swirl of strings to the Weavers'
cheery singalongs. Maybe he was growing bored, because his arrangement
of "Wimoweh" was a great Vegas-y explosion of big-band raunch that
almost equalled the barbaric splendour of the Zulu original. Trombones
blared. Trumpets screamed. Strings swooped and soared through Solomon's
miracle melody. And then Pete cut loose with all that hollering and
screaming. It was a startling departure from everything else the
Weavers had ever done, but Billboard loved it, anointing it a Pick of
the Week. Cash Box said, "May easily break". Variety said, "Terrific!"
But around this time Variety also said, five more
h'woodites named reds and chaplin being investigated. It was January
1952, and America was engaged in a frenzied hunt for Reds under beds.
The House Un-American Affairs Committee was probing Hollywood. Red
Channels had just published the names of artists with Commie
connections. And in Washington, D.C., one Harvey Matusow was talking to
Matusow was a weaselly little man who had once worked
alongside Pete Seeger in Peoples' Artists, a reddish front that
dispatched folk singers to entertain on picket lines and in union
halls. Harvey had undergone a change of heart and decided to tell all
about his secret life in the Communist underground. On February 6th,
1952, just as "Wimoweh" made its chart debut, he stepped up to a mike
before the House Un-American Affairs Committee and told one of the
looniest tales of the entire McCarthy era. Evil Reds, he said, were
"preying on the sexual weakness of American youth" to lure recruits
into their dreaded movement. What's more, he was willing to name names
of Communist Party members, among them three Weavers - including Pete
The yellow press went apeshit. Reporters called the Ohio
club where the Weavers were scheduled to play that night, demanding to
know why the Yankee Inn was providing succor to the enemy. The show was
canned, and it was all downhill from there. Radio stations banned their
records. TV appearances were cancelled. "Wimoweh" plummeted from Number
Six into oblivion. Nightclub owners wouldn't even talk to the Weavers'
agents, and then Decca dropped them too. By the end of the year they'd
packed it in, and Pete Seeger was back where he'd started, teaching
folk songs to kids for a pittance.
So the Weavers were dead, but "Wimoweh" lived on,
bewitching jazz ace Jimmy Dorsey, who covered it in 1952, and the
sultry Yma Sumac, whose cocktail-lounge version caused a minor stir a
few years later. Toward the end of the decade, it was included on Live
From the Hungry I, a monstrously popular LP by the Kingston Trio that
stayed on the charts for more than three years (178 weeks), peaking at
Number Two. By now, almost everyone in America knew the basic refrain,
so it would have come as no particular surprise to find four nice
Jewish teenagers popping their fingers and going ah-weem-oh-way,
ah-weem-oh-way in the summer of 1961.
The Tokens were clean-cut
Brooklyn boys who had grown up listening to DJs Alan Freed and Murray
the K, and the dreamy teen stylings of Dion and the Belmonts and the
Everly Brothers. Hank Medress and Jay Siegel met at Lincoln High, where
they sang in a doo-wop quartet that briefly featured Neil Sedaka. Phil
Margo was a budding drummer and piano player, also from Lincoln High,
and Mitch Margo was his kid brother, age fourteen. One presumes that
girls were already making eyes in their direction, because the Tokens
had recently been on TV's American Bandstand, decked out in
double-breasted mohair suits with white shirts and purple ties, singing
their surprise Top Twenty hit, "Tonight I Fell in Love".
And now they were moving toward even greater things. Barely out of high
school, they landed a three-record deal with RCA Victor, with a $10,000
advance and a crack at working with Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore,
ace producers of Jimmy Rodgers, Frankie Lymon and many, many others.
These guys worked with Elvis Presley, for God's sake. "To us this was
big", says Phil Margo. "Very big".
The Tokens knew "Wimoweh" through their lead singer,
Jay, who'd learned it off an old Weavers album. It was one of the songs
they'd sung when they auditioned for Huge and Luge, their nickname for
the hotshot Italians. The producers said, yeah, great, but what's it
about? "Eating lions", said the Tokens. That's what some joker at the
South African consulate had told them, at any rate: It was a Zulu
hunting song with lyrics that went, "Hush, hush. If everyone's quiet,
we'll have lion meat to eat tonight."
The producers presumably rolled their eyes. None of this
got anyone anywhere in the era of "shooby doo" and so on. They wanted
to revamp the song, give it some intelligible lyrics and a contemporary
feel. They sent for one George David Weiss, a suave young dude in a
navy-blue blazer, presently making a big name for himself in
yesterday's music, writing orchestrations for Doris Day, Peggy Lee and
others of that sort. The Tokens took him for a hopeless square until
they discovered that he'd co-written "Can't Help Falling in Love With
You" for Elvis Presley. That changed everything.
So George Weiss took "Wimoweh" home with him and gave it
a careful listen. A civilized chap with a Juilliard degree, he didn't
much like the primitive wailing, but the underlying chant was OK, and
parts of the melody were very catchy. So he dismantled the song,
excised all the hollering and screaming, and put the rest back together
in a new way. The chant remained unchanged, but the melody - Solomon
Linda's miracle melody - moved to center stage, becoming the tune
itself, to which the new words were sung: "In the jungle, the mighty
jungle" and so on.
In years to come, Weiss was always a bit diffident about
his revisions, describing them as "gimmicks", as if ashamed to be
associated with so frothy a bit of pop nonsense. Phil Margo says that's
because Weiss stole The Tokens' ideas and wrote nothing save
thirty-three words of doggerel, but that's another lawsuit entirely.
What concerns us here is the song's bloodline, and everyone agrees on
that: "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.
The song was recorded live in RCA's Manhattan studios on
July 21st, 1961, with an orchestra in attendance and some session
players on guitar, drums and bass. The percussionist muted his timpani,
seeking that authentic "jungle drum" sound. A moonlighting opera singer
named Anita Darien practiced her scales. Conductor Sammy Lowe tapped
his baton and off they went, three Tokens doing the wimowehs, while Jay
Siegal took the lead with his pure falsetto and Darien swooped and dove
in the high heavens, singing the haunting counter melodies that were
one of the song's great glories. Three takes (again), a bit of
overdubbing, and that was more or less that. Everyone went home,
entirely blind as to what they'd accomplished. The Tokens were
mortified by the new lyrics, which struck them as un-teen and uncool.
Hugo and Luigi were so casual that they did the final mix over the
telephone, and RCA topped them all by issuing the song as the B side of
a humdrum tune called "Tina", which sank like lead.
Weird, no? We're talking about a pop song so powerful
that Brian Wilson had to pull off the road when he first heard it,
totally overcome; a song that Carole King instantly pronounced "a
motherfucker". But it might never have reached their ears if an obscure
DJ named Dick Smith in Worcester, Massachusetts, hadn't flipped the
Tokens' new turkey and given the B side a listen. Smith said, "Holy
shit, this is great", or words to that effect, and ____ put "The Lion
Sleeps Tonight" on heavy rotation. The song broke out regionally, hit
the national charts in November and reached Number One in four giant
Within a month, Karl Denver's cover was Number One in
England, too. By April 1962 the song was topping charts almost
everywhere and heading for immortality. Miriam Makeba sang her version
at JFK's last birthday party, moments before Marilyn Monroe famously
lisped, "Happy Birthday, Mister President!". Apollo astronauts listened
to it on the takeoff pads at Cape Canaveral. It was covered by the
Springfields, the Spinners, the Tremeloes and Glen Campbell. In 1972 it
returned to the charts, at Number Three, in a version by Robert John.
Brian Eno recorded it in 1975. In 1982 it was back at Number One in the
U.K., this time performed by Tight Fit. R.E.M. 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, and
then it got into the smash-hit theatrical production of the same title,
currently playing to packed houses in six cities around the world. It's
on the original Broadway cast recording, on dozens of kiddie CDs with
cuddly lions on their covers and on an infinite variety of nostalgia
compilations. It's more than sixty years old, and still it's
What might all this represent in songwriter royalties
and associated revenues? I put the question to lawyers around the
world, and they scratched their heads. 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.
Which raises an even more interesting question: What happened to all that loot?
Where Does the Lion Sleep Tonight? - Part 2
Mbube - letters links & feedback - January 2004
... read more >>
If you have any comments about this article, please drop us a line: