The Lion sues tonight: how an unknown African singer lost big
The writer of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' found out that the music business is the real jungle
Solomon Linda, a former Zulu herdsman earning a wage at a record company packing plant, was a local legend in Johannesburg thanks to the success of his 1939 hit single Mbube. By night, his choir group the Evening Birds would compete in singing contests, invariably winning; when fans saw Linda they'd buy him drinks. Already a snappy dresser, with the extra cash he got snappier. Then in 1959, he fell ill with a diseased kidney. Medical treatment proved oddly ineffective. Unable to carry on singing, he died three years later, practically penniless. Family members suspected he was poisoned, a victim of sorcery, bewitched by rivals jealous of his success. Foul play was suspected.
He didn't know it, but Solomon Linda was plagued by foul play - or at least injustice - globally. He didn't know how much money should have come his way when Mbube was turned into The Weavers' 1952 hit Wimoweh, and then again, when it became The Lion Sleeps Tonight via The Tokens in 1961. The success of both far eclipsed the stardom he'd experienced at home, and the spoils increased exponentially when the latter song appeared in Disney's 1994 film The Lion King and its subsequent theatre production. It's here again in director Jon Favreau's new photorealistic CGI-retooling of the film, as is a new version of Linda's original Mbube, which plays out as the end credits roll - a nod, perhaps, to its maligned songwriter. South African journalist Rian Malan brought Linda's story to prominence via a 2000 Rolling Stone piece.
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"I know this place in Msinga where Solomon grew up," he says of Linda's early years. "Msinga is possibly the wildest part of Zulu land, very hot in the summer, and entirely a cattle culture. Solomon would have been a traditional Zulu, growing up herding cattle."
Linda was born there in 1909 and later became exposed to African-American music due to the influence of a combo called the Virginia Jubilee Singers, who had visited a few years earlier and had left a cultural impression.
Leaving Msinga to find work in Johannesburg in 1931, Linda got a job in a furniture shop and sang in The Evening Birds, managed by his uncles. The choir fizzled out a couple of years later but Linda, a soprano boasting a mean falsetto, formed a new iteration of the group.
"He was tall and angular and a really sharp dresser," says Malan - Linda and his group would wear bowler hats and two-tone shoes - "especially on Friday and Saturday nights when he'd go to these all-night song and dance marathons, and usually win." Such victories would see him taking home a cow or a goat as prizes.
Lyrically, the Evening Birds' songs would feature some social commentary, including Ngazula Emagumeni (Between Shelters), "about the difficult life of a migrant labourer that came to Johannesburg in the 1930s with no fixed abode, constantly wandering from place to place," says Malan.
The Evening Birds featured, unusually, three bass singers, and are credited with pioneering a style called isicathamiya. "Solomon Linda spawned an entire genre of music," says Malan. "His innovation was that you had this band singing three parts, the bass, then the middle voices, with him singing at the top, it's kind of like a rock arrangement." This was immortalised when, having been spotted by a talent scout, the group began recording songs for record company boss Eric Gallo, and South Africa's first black producer, Griffiths Motsieloa. It was the group's second session, in 1939, that made history.
"Mbube" is Zulu for "lion", and the Evening Birds sing the phrase Uyimbube: 'You are a lion'. Interpretations of the song's meaning vary. "According to Gilbert Madondo, one of two surviving members of the Evening Birds whom I interviewed in the 1980s, Mbube is about a lion cub the members of the group caught," says Veit Erlmann, a professor of ethnomusicology and anthropology who wrote the 1991 book African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance. One of Linda's daughters, Elizabeth Nsele, said the song was inspired by Solomon's childhood experience as a herder, watching a lion circling his cattle. The lion is a mythical beast for Zulus, cast as incredibly powerful and dangerous, and therefore respect-worthy. But the song may have no more significance than 'Yeah yeah yeah'. It was a riff around which they were improvising." Regardless, when the Evening Birds took it to the studio, the song transformed. Music historian Rob Allingham, who until 2008 was also archivist for the Gallo Record Archive, describes what happened. "On the second take, and only above the last repeated chorus, Linda improvised a soprano melody line against the mid-range and bass voices of the rest of the group," he says.
Mbube steadily achieved success on home turf. Over the next few years the record sold around 100,000 copies in Africa, making the group, and specifically Linda, a star.
The group disbanded in 1948, but Linda continued to sing. At the same time, Mbube made its way to the Decca label in New York, as part of a selection of songs sent by Gallo for potential US release. Alan Lomax, then director of folk music for Decca, passed it to folk singer Pete Seeger. Seeger loved the song, but heard "uyimbube" as "wimoweh", and, with his band The Weavers, enjoyed much live success with a cover before recording a big brassy yodelly take on it, unwittingly jumpstarting a new journey for the song that would result in endless adaptations and a labyrinthian legal quagmire.
Solomon Linda was paid 10 shillings for recording Mbube. The South African recording industry then was primitive. There were no royalties for popular music, and in 1952 Linda, now sweeping floors at Gallo's packing plant, assigned copyright of the song to the company, via a contract that likely meant nothing to him as he couldn't read or write.
Nothing, though, detracts from Mbube's specific marriage of lyric and melody, and, of course, Linda's improvisational falsetto, which gets a good airing, under the guise of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, in Disney's new CGI version of The Lion King.
'The Lion King' is showing in cinemas nationwide