Fact: The South African lyrics of “Mbube” (lion) by Solomon Linda was the inspiration behind “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” from the Disney film The Lion King 1994.
A South African musician, singer, and composer, Solomon was born near Pomeroy in Natal where he grew up with familiar traditions of various music including wedding songs. During his years at Gordon Memorial mission school, he often sang in the choir where he would start to hear about US music from the 1880s popularized syncopated music that he and his friends incorporated into their singing at weddings and feasts.
In 1931, he left his homestead to travel to Johannesburg, a town being noticed for their sprawling gold-mining and cheap labor. It was here where he worked at the Mayi Mayi Furniture Shop, later to work at Carlton Hotel. It was here where he would get together with a small choir on Small Street. The choir would be known as the Evening Birds. The group consisted of Solomon Linda (soprano), Gilbert Madondo (alto), Boy Sibiya (tenor), with Gideon Mkhize, Samuel Mlangeni, and Owen Sikhakhane as basses. These singers were friends of his from Pomeroy.
Later in life, he found himself working at the Gallo Records Company in 1939, where the Evening Birds were witnessed to the company talent of Griffith Motsieloa. Griffith clearly enjoyed their sound so they started recording tracks when Linda at one time improvised the song “Mbube” (lion). In the decade that followed, the song would garnes heavy interest in South Africa selling 100,000 copies by 1949. Unfortunately, Linda sold the rights to the song right after it was recorded for 10 shillings *$2 USD). Fortunately, British law was in effect saying that the rights should revert to Linda or his heirs 25 years after his death in 1962.
The song would be lost forever if it weren’t for a legendary folklorist. Alan Lomax happen to be in South Africa at the time where he decided to ship back a bunch of records from Decca Records to New York City. Without even listening to any of the music, Lomax sent these records to folksinger Pete Seeger. Unable to understand the lyrics of “Mbube”, Seeger transcribed the chant as “Wimoweh.” This transcribed version would be recorded by the Weavers in early 1952.
Jay Siegel would come to love the Kingston Trios covers version of the Weaver’s rendition of “Wimoweh”. He would commission an English translation of the lyrics and re-title it “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which went on to be the #1 song of this day in 1961. It would be the most-covered, most successful pop song of all time (History.com).
If it were not for Rolling Stone’s 2000 article written by Rian Malan, no one would have ever known the injustice that occurred to the family and heirs of Linda’s original song. The music and money associated with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” went into the pockets of a few popular US music publishers, very little of which found its way to Linda’s heirs. Only the $1000 personal check written by Pete Seeger. The music or composition was treated as public domain “folk” material by Pete Seeger so money never had to work its way to the family of Linda.
In 2006, a settlement was reached by the family and the publishers for an undisclosed amount of money but was only a tiny fraction of the million upon millions these companies gained from the original song mbube.
- Wikipedia contributors. (2021, December 18). Solomon Linda. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Linda
- Solomon Linda&The Evening ( The First Version ) – Mbube. (2007, November 8). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrrQT4WkbNE
- History.com Editors. (2020, December 17). The Tokens earn a #1 hit with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-tokens-earn-a-1-hit-with-the-lion-sleeps-tonight
- Browne, D., & Browne, D. (2022). ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’: The Ongoing Saga of Pop’s Most Contentious Song. Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/lion-sleeps-tonight-lion-king-update-879663/
- Malan, R., & Malan, R. (2022). Inside the Long, Hidden Genealogy of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. Retrieved 4 January 2022, from https://www.rollingstone.com/feature/in-the-jungle-inside-the-long-hidden-genealogy-of-the-lion-sleeps-tonight-108274/