Solomon Linda is responsible for one of the most instantly recognised songs heard across the world and yet despite this, he earned little from the composition and was to die unrecognised and in poverty.
Linda was born in 1909 on a labour reserve near Ladysmith in Natal, South Africa. He grew up in the traditions of amahubo and izingoma zomshado music, or wedding songs.
Music was his first love and when he attended the Gordon Memorial mission school he took part in choir contests. Linda became influenced by the syncopated music that had been introduced into South Africa from America during the 1880s and he included it in the Zulu songs he and his friends sang at weddings and feasts.
In 1931, Linda left for Johannesburg and worked at a number of menial jobs, but he also formed an a capella group called the Evening Birds. They performed at weddings and in choir competitions and became very popular as a ‘very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes’.
Eight years later, Linda got a job as a record packer at the Gallo Recording Company, the only studio in sub-Saharan Africa at the time. The Evening Birds began to record their music and at one session Linda improvised a new song called Mbube which is Zulu for lion. The song was a great success and became the first to sell more than sold 100,000 copies in South Africa.
However, Linda sold the right to the song to the record company for just ten shillings, about £25 at today’s value, and in 1948 the Evening Birds disbanded and Linda married and went into semi-retirement from the music business.
The song Mbube was rediscovered in the 1950s by Pete Seeger. He retitled it Wimoweh, a rough phonetic translation of the Zulu refrain of ‘uyembube’, and recorded it in 1952 with his folk group the Weavers. It became a Top 20 hit in America then in the 1960s it was recorded again, by the Karl Denver Trio in the UK and by The Tokens in the US with the title and version we are now most familiar – The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Despite the success of the song, Linda died of renal failure and in poverty in 1962 and it wasn’t until 2000 that his story was told in a Rolling Stone article. In it, the South African journalist Rian Malan estimated that Mbube had earned $15 million dollars from its use in The Lion King alone.
Under the British law which applied at the time Linda sold the song, the rights to Mbube should have reverted to his heirs 25 years after his death and in 2004 his descendants sued The Walt Disney Company, with the backing of the South African government and Gallo Records. The case was settled in 2006, part of which acknowledged Linda as co-composer of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Popular though the English/American rendition might be, it is flawed in at least two important respects – a) lions prefer to hunt at night rather than sleep because they can get closer to their prey in the darkness and b) neither do they live in ‘the mighty jungle’ but on the open savanna along with the herd animals they hunt.
You can see the later familiar versions from the links above, but I leave you with Linda and The Evening Birds’ original.