By: Tendani Mulaudzi

The words resonate in my mind like a bad song that is stuck in my head: ‘finders, keepers’. Some of my traumatic childhood experiences that I will always remember quite vividly involved the speaking of these words; never by me, of course, but rather by a mean peer. The situations always went along the lines of the following: I lose a sweet. I look everywhere for it and I am very upset by the fact that it is probably gone forever. One of the girls in my class finds a sweet just like mine (because it is mine) and proceeds to unwrap it. Like something out of a movie, I run towards her in what feels like slow motion and demand her to give it back to me. She simply replies, “Finders, keepers!”

It’s safe to say that this is similar to the way that Solomon Linda and his family probably felt when “Mbube” was stolen from them: cheated, robbed. Comparing losing a sweet to losing a creative entity such as a song is a terrible comparison, but my point has been made. For the 6 year old me and Solomon Linda, our feelings concerning our specific conflicts matched.

Solomon Linda, a Zulu tribesman, wrote a song that some say changed the world. I first heard it when I was about 1 and half years old, although I was probably only singing along to it 2 years later. The song was featured in one of my favourite movies, a classic that remains one of my best to this day, The Lion King. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, as it is now called, is a song that I will never forget, no matter how long I don’t hear it for. However, I had absolutely no idea that a Zulu from South Africa was the original composer of the song until about two weeks ago. For 18 years, I have been deceived into thinking that an American wrote the song from scratch. 18 years of giving credit to someone for something they hardly had any part in is a rather alarming.

The first thing I felt was pure shock when I found out. How could these people do that, just take something that didn’t belong to them and keep it as their own? After this appalling information had set in, I asked myself, “Can you blame them?”

The song “Mbube” first landed in the hands of an American in 1948. These hands belonged to Pete Seeger, a folklore singer and at that time, part of a band called Woody Guthrie. The record of the song that he listened to was the original by Solomon Linda and his band, The Evening Birds. Seeger kept the entire song the same, except he misinterpreted a word that was repetitively sang throughout the song. Instead of “uyimbube”, Seeger heard the word “awimoweh”.

Cutting a long story short, in 1950, Seeger and his band the Weavers made the big time with their new record, which included the new “Mbube”, now called “Wimoweh”. Other than the name, the song hadn’t changed much. The Weavers just added a “finger-popping rhythm” which made it more accustomed for white people.

I must admit, I feel a bit of sympathy towards Pete Seeger’s part to play in the commercializing of “Wimoweh”. He was given ten records that no one else wanted, and found a song that would be great to sing. He wasn’t very well off, and could do with a little push in the right direction. The song landed in his possession at just the right time for him. In later years, it was clear that Pete Seeger did not want any of the profit made from “Wimoweh”. He acknowledged that it was not his song; it belonged to a man in South Africa named Solomon Linda. He was one of the few that did not want to be credited for something he was not responsible for.

Therefore, I cannot blame Pete Seeger. He was a man that needed to make a living, and all he needed “Wimoweh” for was to get his career going; he did not want the song to define his career and he certainly did not want to make his living off of the profits of that song alone.

It is not Pete Seeger who was the problem. It was the people who came onto the scene of “Wimoweh” later. George Weiss is a person we can blame quite a bit. George Weiss wrote the words, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” He added lyrics consisting of ten words turned the song into something that could fit the pop genre a little more than it did, which, to him, made him the original composer. According to him, Linda only composed the “uyimbube” lyric of the song.

As one would guess, seeing as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is more or less the most famous song in the world, Weiss has made millions from the royalties of the song. It wasn’t until years later, when he was forced to acknowledge that Linda had a part to play in the composition of the song, that he sent Linda’s family $12 000, which equalled 10%, of the royalties. 10%, when Linda was responsible for at least 80% of the product that apparently belonged to Weiss? Again, this is anything but impressive.

I have tried to put myself in Weiss’s shoes and asked myself why he would claim so much of the royalties of the song, when he already had enough money to last him a lifetime. Greed, he had plenty of that, but what he lacked was simple humanity. When I heard the story of Solomon Linda, how he died a pauper, without a tombstone on his grave as his family could not afford it, my heart broke. How was it possible for George Weiss to lie there luxuriously amongst his millions and not think of the rightful owner of these millions and his family, who had absolutely nothing?

There are a few conclusions I have come to. To some Americans, Africa is like a mythical place to them. It seems far and foreign, their paths would never cross. Maybe this is what Weiss thought of Solomon Linda. Maybe he thought there was no way that Linda’s family would ever find out about the song and his claims, since, to him, Africa was so distant and disconnected from America. After all, Weiss is one of the gullible people that still, to this day, are under the impression that the song is a tribute to the process of hunting a lion. He probably did not doubt this perception of the song as soon as he heard it. You cannot blame them for their pure ignorance.

He probably also thought, “Finders, keepers” when he stole the song and its ideas directly from the Tokens and indirectly from Solomon Linda. Since he found it, and made it sound better than it did originally, it was his. Why praise anyone else for the song when he made it what it is today?

The only reasons I can come up with basically link to the idea that George Weiss is purely delusional. I can’t think of any other motive that would cause him to claim recognition of a song of South Africans in poverty other than ignorance.

I am now one of the very few people that know the truth about this song we all know and love. There is not much I can do to help Solomon Linda’s family attain the rights to the money they deserve. However, I imagine Solomon Linda constantly looking over us from somewhere in the sky. I imagine that every time someone finds out the song rightfully belongs to him, he bursts into song and happily sings that amazing melody of his. I imagine that he doesn’t care about the money, he is happy that he gets to share his wonderful music with the whole world, even if some people do not know it is his music. I imagine, but I pray to God it’s true.