Thursday, October 28, 2010

Solomon Linda, Minstrel Music and the genesis of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

Solomon Linda (1909 – 8 October 1962) was a South African Zulu musician, singer and composer who wrote the song "Mbube" which later became the pop hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and gave its name to the Mbube style of a cappella song later popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Solomon Popoli Linda was born near Pomeroy, on the labor reserve Msinga, Umzinyathi District Municipality in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal where he was familiar with the traditions of amahubo and izingoma zomtshado (wedding songs) music. He attended the Gordon Memorial mission school where he came in contact with Western musical culture, hymns, and choir contests in which he participated.   In particular, he was apparently greatly influenced by the syncopations of American minstrel music.

Orpheus Myron McAdoo's Virginia Jubilee Singers were an all black minstrel group formed in the last decade of the 19th century which toured extensively in Europe, Africa and Australia.  Since 1892, McAdoo’s Jubilee Singers had extensive and regular tours in South Africa, in mining towns and bush villages.   The group continued to tour even after McAdoo's death in 1900.  During one of those visits, the group played at a colonial school in Zulu country about 300 miles southeast of Johannesburg.  It was here that Solomon Linda first heard the syncopated cadences of American minstrel music, a bastardization of African rythyms which, after the American Civil War, had eventually come to be re-appropriated by some African-American singing groups

Influenced by the new syncopated music that had swept across South Africa from the US since the 1880s, Linda worked it into the Zulu songs he and his friends sang at weddings and feasts.

In 1931, Linda joined the stream of young African men who left their homesteads to find menial work in Johannesburg, a sprawling gold-mining town hungry for cheap labor. He worked in a furniture shop in downtown Johannesburg and sang in a choir called the Evening Birds led by his uncles, which disbanded in 1933.

Linda started a new group that retained the Evening Birds name. The members of the group were Solomon Linda (soprano), Gilbert Madondo (alto), Boy Sibiya (tenor), with Gideon Mkhize, Samuel Mlangeni, and Owen Sikhakhane as basses. They were all Linda's friends from Pomeroy.  The group evolved from performances at weddings to choir competitions. Linda's musical popularity grew with the Evening Birds, who presented "a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes.”

In 1939 the Evening Birds were spotted by a record company talent scout. While recording a number of songs in the studio, Linda improvised "Mbube" (Lion).

"Mbube" was a major success for Linda and the Evening Birds, reportedly selling over 100,000 copies in South Africa by 1949. The recording was produced at the Gallo Recording Studios, in Johannesburg. Linda sold the rights to Gallo Record Company for 10 shillings (less than $US 2) shortly after the recording was made, but under British laws then in effect, those rights should have reverted to Linda's heirs 25 years after his death in 1962.

Linda’s South African recording was discovered in the early 1950s by American musicologist Alan Lomax, who passed it on to his friend, folk musician Pete Seeger of The Weavers. Seeger retitled it "Wimoweh" (an inaccurate phonetic rendering of the song's Zulu refrain, "uyembube") and it was popularized by The Weavers; they recorded a studio version in 1952 which became a Top 20 hit in the USA, as well as an influential live version recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and released in April, 1957, which turned the song into a folk music staple. The Weavers' version was subsequently covered by The Kingston Trio in 1959 and was also the inspiration for the 1961 version recorded by pop group The Tokens, for whom it was extensively re-written by George Weiss and retitled "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." This is the version most people are now familiar with.

In 1948, the Evening Birds broke up, and a year later Linda married. While raising a family he continued to perform. His song "Mbube" had made him a star in South Africa.  By 1962, however, Linda was sick with kidney disease and living in a shantytown.  He died in poverty and relative obscurity on October 8, 1962 of renal failure, ignorant of the fact that the childhood tune he had molded into “Mbube” had become a doo wop hit in the U.S. It took another 18 years to erect a tombstone at his gravesite.

In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine, highlighting Linda's story and estimating that the song had earned US $15 million for its use in The Lion King alone. Malan and the South African film maker Fran├žois Verster cooperated to make a television documentary called The Lion's Trail which tells Solomon Linda's story and was screened by PBS. In 2004, with the backing of the South African government and Gallo Records, Linda's descendants brought a lawsuit in South Africa against the US company The Walt Disney Company for its use in The Lion King movie and stage musical without paying royalties to them.  In February 2006, Linda's heirs reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney. This settlement applies to worldwide rights, not just South African, since 1987. The money will go into a trust for Linda’s heirs.

-- from various sources, mostly Wikipedia