Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mbube Sleeps Tonight

Mbube means "lion" in Zulu.

Solomon Ntsele was born in 1909 in the bush near Ladysmith. He would later become known as Solomon Linda, using his clan name.

His family was very poor. He would often spend evenings guarding his family's cattle against lions. So his bio says - not sure what a boy could have done if a lion came; perhaps at least sound the alarm.

Solomon had always had a love of music inside him. He attended mission school where he became acquainted with Western music culture, hymns, etc. He participated in choir contests. He never learned to read and write, though.

In the mid-1930s, Solomon traveled to Johannesburg to seek his fortune, more or less. There was definitely nothing going on in his village. This is to say that Solomon joined the ranks of countless other young men who ended up doing menial work in the big city.

Solomon formed a musical group by the name of the Evening Birds, and they sang at clubs on weekends. They became pretty popular in the beer halls of Soweto Township which were frequented by the black laborers who lived there.

Solomon left his job at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg and found employment as a record packer for Italian immigrant Eric Gallo's recording studio, the only studio in sub-Saharan Africa at the time. It was here that the Evening Birds were noticed and recorded. Solomon had written a song he called Mbube, and they recorded it in three or four takes. This was in 1939.

The song didn't really have words. It was of the popular South African "isicathamiya" style, with syncopated rhythms and interwoven vocals that is so characteristic of that distinct local genre. On the final take, Solomon impulsively added some words at the end that were to become famous the world over. "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."

The song became immensely popular, selling over 100,000 78 RPM copies through 1949. Since then, the song has been recorded by over 150 singers and groups, used in movies (Disney's "Lion King") and broadway productions.

But Solomon Linda had sold his rights to the recording studio for 10 shillings, and that was that.

If you are not very old, you will remember the version in "The Lion King." If you are older, you will remember the incredible success The Tokens had with the song in the 1960s. If you are even older, you will remember the smash hit it became for The Weavers.

As I said, over 150 artists have recorded the song. In addition to Disney, The Tokens and The Weavers, others included Jimmy Dorsey, The Kingston Trio, The Spinners, The Tremeloes, Glen Campbell, They Might Be Giants, Miriam Makeba, R.E.M., Chet Atkins... it goes on and on. Besides the Disney movie, the song was used in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.

The Weavers were the first, I guess. Someone brought Pete Seeger (who was part of The Weavers at that time) a stack of 78s to listen to, and Solomon's song was among them. Seeger was captivated by the song, playing it over and over and over and trying to transcribe the African words being chanted. One word he just couldn't make out, and finally wrote it down as "Wimoweh." And so the song would became known in America. (The actual Zulu word being repeated in the song was "uyimbube." Close enough. Seeger taught the song to the Weavers and the rest is history.

I liked The Token's version best (although the Kingston Trio's version stayed on the charts for 3 years) until I recently heard a recording of the version done by a much more elderly Pete Seeger, recorded at a concert he once did with Arlo Guthrie. You may recall that Seeger in his youth also sang with the great Woody Guthrie, Arlo's daddy.

I don't think any of these people really knew what the song was about. Just so YOU know, it was about a young lad who used to guard his family's cattle from lions at night.

An lot of people made an awful lot of money off Solomon's song. The Song of Solomon, if you will. Millions and millions of Dollars.

Solomon Linda, meanwhile died impoverished in apartheid South Africa. His wife couldn't even afford a headstone for his grave. Someone finally erected a headstone 18 years after he died. You see, The Weaver's producers had songwriter George David Weiss rework the song. He added more words and retitled the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." He made enough changes that he obtained copyright for the work. And so it goes.

As far as I know, the only money Solomon Linda's family ever saw for the song was a check for $1000 that Pete Seeger sent them out of his own pocket one time. That and the 10 shillings Solomon got from the recording studio so long ago.

If you would like to hear my own current favorite version of the song, the one by Pete Seeger in that concert with Arlo Guthrie, the link to the music is below. Pete sings the falsetto part that made the song famous, the same eerie falsetto voice sung by Solomon himself when he was an Evening Bird in 1939.

The Evening Birds. Solomon Linda is the tall man at the left.

"Wimoweh" (Mbube) Sung by Pete Seeger and concert audience. ("Precious Friend" concert with Arlo Guthrie)

Buy "Precious Friend" on iTunes or Amazon

Update: His name is spelled "Solomon."


  1. How many such men have seen their music make a success for others, while they received little?

  2. thx for posting this, I never knew.

  3. The a capella group, Straight No Chaser I saw in concert sang this as well. It was and is a beautiful song. Pity the inspiration behind it saw so little remuneration. I'd heard the story, but it doesn't make it less sad.

  4. Hi Max, great to see this article on your blog! As s South African I am very familiar with the story therefore it is wonderful to see someone outside our country write about it. It is so unfair and heartbreaking if you consider how popular that song is! As far as I know the family are still trying to get recognition for the song and the royalties if only they could get the support of millions the way Nelson Mandela did, hey!

    Take care Frostygirl



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