Mbubeby Brandon Edmonds / 25.07.2013
When Rian Malan isn’t being an Aids denialist, or worse, a blues singer, he’s been known to write, and write well. Here he describes, in a seminal Rolling Stone article from 2000, how the fourth song in our countdown of the Greatest SA Pop Songs Evah went down: “The third take was the great one, but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words: In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” We’ll return to that uncanny melody in a moment.
Malan’s admirable article would go some ways to righting a terrible wrong, a wrong at the very birth of SA pop, a wrong that bilked a great artist out of the royalties that would have given him and his family a better life.
As Malan tells it, when Solomon Linda, lead singer of the dapper as fuck isicathamiya (a cappella) originators, the Evening Birds, died, his wife couldn’t even afford to bury him right, though his singular haunting song had morphed by then, in the suggestible West, into a kind of orientalist shorthand for Africa itself: it was a big hit, for the Weavers, then the Tokens, in mutated forms, as “Wimoweh” in the 1950s and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the 1960s, covered over 170 times, and counting, before ending up in “Ace Ventura” and Disney’s “The Lion King”, sung by warthogs as comic relief, where it still circulates globally as a touchstone of cuddly exoticism for the whole family. All the while, Linda kept packing boxes at Gallo, the record company that had bought his song for peanuts.
The original was recorded in the first recording studio in the country, according to Malan, and was an immediate word-of-mouth popular hit. Guestimates suggest the multiple offspring of “Mbube” (the lion) have made at least $15 million for those who control it. That the song was sold cheap and given away to foreign interests sums up the whole extractive, low-tech, resource-driven South African economy, to this day: everything must go.
Solomon Linda, “a shy gangly 30 year old” (Malan), from Masinga, headed to Joburg in the 1930s looking for a job. He couldn’t read or write, but man could he sing, and the Evening Birds soon dominated the Zulu migrant hostel song battle circuit back then, winning cash and cows. A talent scout approached them to record some songs and one of them was “Mbube”. It’d sold 100 000 copies locally, by 1948, and when the re-worked song became a big sixties hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, Linda’s daughter told Malan, “He was happy – he didn’t know he was supposed to get something.”
In the thirties, things were looser copyright-wise. Artists took what they were offered. “No one got royalties and copyright was unknown,” Malan writes. “Solomon Linda didn’t even get a contract.” Gallo sold the song to an American company that renamed and reworked it and scooped up the royalties. Linda had been paid ten shillings, peanuts even then.
By 1962, the year Linda died, at 53, Miriam Makeba sang “Mbube” to John F Kennedy at the same birthday party Marilyn whisper-fucked him in front of Jackie. Dying of kidney failure, Linda probably coughed blood that night, lost in fever dreams, and died with R100 in the bank.
But it aint all bad: Linda’s surviving family recently settled the royalties dispute for an undisclosed sum (hopefully millions) and his reputation as the song’s maker is secure. At least, Linda had enjoyed, according to Malan, “a big reputation, adulation and lionization; several cool suits, a wind-up gramophone…and a trickle of royalties that had spared his daughters absolute penury.”
Annoyingly, the New York Times called “Mbube”, “almost childish in its simplicity”, which is just…really? In fact, Robert Johnson’s “Me & the Devil Blues”, released 2 years earlier in 1937, and about as American as American music gets, is closest to the parched other-worldliness of Linda’s song, both without a wasted note, or a moment’s exaggeration, both with sudden male falsettos signifying a peril (the presence of the devil for Johnson and a lion for Linda) which communicates, in turn, something of the precarity of struggling black lives in new urban settings in the 1930s.
For sheer melodic swing, “Mbube”, in pop terms, the way it entertains, the way it gets under your skin, the way it makes you wonder about the person making these incredible sounds, and how they were treated because of their race, is as powerful as the Johnson classic, as important, and in its many incarnations and wide-ranging travels through the global imaginary, maybe even more so? It’s just fucking moving and beautiful. Nobody has matched it. Nkosi Solomon.