Solomon Linda PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 29 November 2008 17:24

Solomon Popoli Linda

Born: 1909

Died: 8 October 1962

Age: 52

Cause of death: Renal failure.

Notable because: Wrote 'The Lion sleeps tonight' which generated millions in royalties, but not for him as a black South African. Lived and died in poverty. His song lives on as a classic.


Solomon Linda 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 a style of isicathamiya a cappella popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Solomon Popoli Linda was born near Pomeroy, in the impoverished Msinga rural area of Zululand and attended the Gordon Memorial mission school.  Influenced by the new syncopated music that had swept across South Africa from the US since the 1880s, he 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, by then a sprawling gold-mining town hungry for cheap labour. He worked in the furniture store of his uncle's while singing in their choir, the Evening Birds, which disbanded in 1933. Linda started a new group that retained the Evening Birds name, and found employment at Johannesburg's Carlton Hotel.

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"

After Linda started working at the Gallo Record Company's Roodepoort plant in 1939, the Evening Birds were spotted by company talent scout Griffith Motsieloa.  Italian immigrant Eric Gallo owned what at that time was sub-Saharan Africa's only recording studio. 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 by Motsieloa 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.

In 1948 The Evening Birds broke up, and a year later Linda married Regina. While raising a family he continued to perform. His song "Mbube" had made him a star in South Africa.

Linda is credited with a number of musical innovations that came to dominate the isicathamiya style. Instead of using one singer per voice part, the Evening Birds used a number of bass singers. He introduced the falsetto lead voice which incorporated female vocal texture into male singing. His group was the first to use striped suits to indicate that they were urban sophisticates. At the same time, their bass singing retained musical elements that indicated an attachment to traditional ways of singing choral music.

Some of Linda's music reflects the increasing humiliation that black South Africans were experiencing. For example, Yetulisgqoko (Take off your hat, Gallo GE 887) recalls treatment meted out by Pass Office officials, and ends with the words Sikhalela izwe lakithi ("We mourn for our country.") Such expressions of political realities were not unheard of in mbube songs. Groups like the Alexandrians were attached to the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union in Johannesburg.

Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds in 1941. From left to right are: Solomon Linda (soprano), Gilbert Madondo (alto), Boy Sibiya (tenor), Gideon Mkhize (bass), Samuel Mlangeni (bass), and Owen Sikhakhane (bass).

The original South African recording was later 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 1957, which turned the song into a folk music staple. The Weavers' version was subsequently covered by The Kingston Trio in 1959.

The Weavers' Carnegie Hall version 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. (However, at the time, 1961/2, an up-tempo version by the Karl Denver Trio was the more successful in the UK).

Despite the popularity and wide use of the song, Linda died in poverty in 1962 of renal failure. 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 François 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 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, to be administered by SA Music Rights CEO Nick Motsatsi.


Last Updated on Friday, 22 June 2012 08:00

Add comment

Security code

Who's Online

We have 96 guests online