Solomon Linda (1909–1962) spent the majority of his life as a poor and largely unknown Zulu laborer from Ladysmith, South Africa. Even after he and The Evening Birds recorded what would continue to be one of the most transformed and rereleased songs ever, Linda’s regional notoriety would not ever extend beyond South Africa during his lifetime. Worse yet, Linda would only see a minute fraction of the tremendous amount of revenue that this simple track would generate in its many iterations and implementations during and after his life—revenue from which he and his destitute family could have dearly benefitted. “Mbube” would bring several important musical and ethical questions to the forefront: who really owns a musical work, to what degree must an original musical work be transformed until it can be considered a new original, and who deserves what money?
Linda was steeped in Zulu culture since birth, having been raised entirely within a Zulu community singing traditional Zulu songs until his journey to Johannesburg in search of employment in 1931. The Evening Birds simply began as Linda’s earnest attempt to preserve Zulu musical tradition beyond the boundaries of his birthplace as he ventured to the big city. Little did Linda know, however, that he and his friends would give birth to a genre so iconic that it would adopt “Mbube” as its eventual identifier.
“Mbube” was not always so evidently destined for fame (or infamy), though, and its very existence hinged on a chance encounter that Linda and The Evening Birds happened to have with a scout from Gallo Records, their employer in Johannesburg at the time. The South African label specialized in recording African music onto 78s and saw potential in the tunes that Linda and his friends were singing as they packed those same 78s to earn a living. In 1939, Gallo Records offered to Linda and The Evening Birds the exclusive opportunity to try their hand at recording these Zulu songs. The session was generally unremarkable and often frustrating, considering that Linda and his friends had zero prior experience within a recording studio. Despite this, one promising track would emerge to transform an otherwise royal waste of effort into pure magic.
Griffiths Motsieloa, recognized as the first black producer in South Africa, begrudgingly oversaw Linda’s foray into the realm of recording. Motsieloa was vastly disinterested in producing what Linda had to offer musically—as Rian Malan of Rolling Stone described him, “[he] was a refined classicist who abhorred this cultural slumming”—but nonetheless offered his guidance to Linda and The Evening Birds throughout the painstaking process. By the time that Linda and his fellow musicians prepared to record “Mbube,” they had already infuriated Motsieloa with many unimpressive, downright useless takes. Linda could only partially get through two disappointing takes of “Mbube” before Motsieloa insisted on recruiting three instrumentalists down the hall: a guitarist, a banjoist, and a pianist. Linda was initially skeptical of this presumed bastardization of traditional Zulu music but still elected to record again with the unconventional additions. As the vocalists struggled to accommodate the foreign sounds of the strings (who were likewise struggling to find their key), Linda whimsically improvised a melody that would spark just as much controversy as it would admiration in the decades to come.
Motsieloa knew that he had struck gold; it was not long thereafter that “Mbube” was circulating throughout South Africa on 78s pressed in England and stamped with the signature rooster of Gallo Records, to whom they had swiftly sold the rights to their piece for a “petty cash voucher”—a dubious decision that would plague Linda for the remainder of his life. Regardless, Linda and The Evening Birds rapidly became local superstars as Zulu migrants identified with the Zulu lyrics of “Mbube” and upheld Linda as the ideal of Zulu success.
In 1948, Alan Lomax (1915–2002), an American folklorist who had already well established himself as an archivist of black American music and at the time worked for Decca Records, accidentally stumbled upon “Mbube” in a stack of ten African 78s designated for the garbage. Lomax soon presented “Mbube” to Pete Seeger (1919–2014) of The Weavers who in turn sought to morph it into something new altogether. Lacking any familiarity whatsoever with the Zulu language, Seeger transcribed “Mbube” phonetically, hearing the original Zulu “uyimbube” as “wimoweh” instead and renaming his rendition just that. Punctuating Seeger’s departure from Linda’s version was his unique decision to set “Wimoweh” to accompaniment by a big brass band—something that Linda never could have dreamed of doing. In 1952, “Wimoweh” reached #6 in America, all without eliciting a single peep from Gallo Records across the ocean.
Seeger catalyzed the ensuing torrent of remakes of “Mbube” with “Wimoweh” as it was released under Decca Records. Countless covers were to come, all striving to capitalize on the catchy beat and the enchanting melody that Linda had laid down in 1939. These covers stuck mostly true to Seeger’s version until 1961, when Jay Siegel (1939–) of The Tokens debuted his version as it was rewritten by George David Weiss (1921-2010). In addition to tweaking the musical style of “Wimoweh” to be less brassy, Weiss added the famous words “in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight,” and like that, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” skyrocketed to #1 in America and #11 in England, just before Linda died in poverty from renal failure in 1962.
Malan estimated in 2000 that “Mbube,” “Wimoweh,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” had earned artists $15 million in total royalties since 1939. Unfortunately, those lucky artists did not include Linda himself, who had already long passed away. So who got what money? Broadly speaking, royalties were divided into two categories: publisher and composer. Seeger and The Weavers received the former for “Wimoweh” while Weiss did the latter for his essential role in “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” although Seeger did so far less enthusiastically. As he recalled, “The big mistake I made was not making sure that my publisher signed a regular songwriters’ contract with Linda.” Seeger’s conscience prompted him to send $1000 to Linda’s family back in 1962, and although he instructed his publisher, TRO/Folkways, to keep this compensatory trend going, Seeger’s request was totally ignored.
The drama hit its peak in 2004 when Linda’s family decided for the first time ever to pursue legal action against some of those who had so enormously and unfairly profited from Linda’s composition—in this instance, Disney. Seeking recompense for the use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and thus indirectly the unauthorized use of “Mbube” in The Lion King, Linda’s family sued Disney for $1.6 million, representing only a tiny portion of the cash that the theatre and film spectacle reaped for Disney. The case attracted widespread public attention but was never settled.
In the same year, TRO/Folkways vowed to construct a memorial in honor of Linda and to furnish his surviving family with $3000 annually, presumably to counteract the decades of silence prior. Whether TRO/Folkways did this from goodness of heart or as a preemptive measure against another hefty lawsuit, this was the first and only real victory that Linda’s family had experienced. Still, the fact remained that as Linda’s family celebrated a meager consolation—one with relatively insignificant financial bearing—Seeger, Weiss, and Disney would grow richer by the day, all thanks to a modest Zulu man with an unforgettable falsetto.
“A Lion’s Trail.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
“Gallo Record Company.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
Malan, Rian. “Longform Reprints: In the Jungle by Rian Malan.” Editorial. Rolling Stone May 2000: n. pag. Longform. Longform. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
“Solomon Linda.” Solomon Linda. NNDB, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.