Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Solomon Linda's Mbube

In 2000 South African journalist Rian Malan wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine about the origins of the mega-hit track The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and how Solomon Linda, who first sang the track at Gallo Studios in 1938, died a pauper without the recognition he deserved.

He likened the track to being as South African as Australia’s Waltzing Matilda is Australia, in that if it had been correctly credited, South African music would have been on the map a lot earlier. And Solomon would have ended up waltzing a lot more in his own life-time, if he had received even a fraction of the royalties earned on the track.

Instead, it was stolen. Colonized. Ripped off by some honky hilly-billy American folk singers (Pete Seeger, left, was honky-tonk #1) who claimed it as their own… After that countless other groups tried to make better, what was already a great track – can you imagine that Solomon and his group the Evening Birds had already sold some 100 000 ten-inch 78-rpm records to South African audiences between 1939 and 1949?

Not even Eric Gallo had expected this to happen when he first recorded the improvised track onto a spinning block of beeswax, which was then sent to England to be mastered, and then sent back. And they had to repress so many copies that the original master eventually just disintegrated!

But across the waters the track took on a few different names The Lion Sleeps Tonight / Whimaway / In the Jungle, etc.), with changes made by different artists over the years, until it made its biggest impact as part of Disney’s animated film The Lion King and the stage production of the same name. But during all the hype and excitement, Solomon Linda and his family were left penniless…

I was really chuffed when Spoor & Fischer, a group of attorneys from Johannesburg, filed a copyright infringement claim in South Africa against the US company, The Walt Disney Company, to recoup royalties on behalf of the family. Remember that according to British Law, under which South Africa was ruled when Solomon sold the track to Gallo (that's the origional recording pictured right), the royalties should have reverted to the family 25-years after its author’s demise – and Solomon died in 1962! But this was completely ignored, and Rian Malan, in his original article estimated that the Linda family could have earned some US$ 15 million… That’s not exactly small change!

Eventually S&F won a relatively short court battle and were able to hold Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters hostage until their claim was taken seriously. And that has started happening now – since last year a number of companies have agreed to pay royalties to the Linda estate. It’s like the Lion has been allowed to come home to sleep – and I think it’s very cool that in this ‘David & Goliath’ situation, David got to klap Disney!

Here, then, is the real Lion King song - "Mbube" - by Solomon Linda!

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