Tag Archive: the tokens

The exploitation of a black Zulu man in Apartheid South Africa is not an unbelievable story or a new one. What makes Solomon Linda’s story so different? He could have been rich. His family could have been rich, and he improvised, probably, the most famous and well-known melody in the whole world.

“Mbube”, sung by Solomon Linda and his a cappella group The Evening Birds, was recorded in 1939, in the first recording studio in South Africa, owned by Eric Gallo who formed Gallo Records. Better known as the “Lion Sleeps Tonight”, nobody in that room could have imagined that this melody would go on to be recorded around 160 times, of three different versions, be featured in 13 movies and musicals, 6 commercials and 60 years of airplay. How much of that money did the Linda family see? A measly, $12, 000. What an outrage! What an injustice! Right?

Technically, that is $12 000 that the Linda family, by law, were not entitled to. Solomon Linda sold his song, “Mbube”, and all the rights to the song, to Gallo Records for 10 shillings. When “Mbube” became The Weavers’ “Wimoweh”, Gallo traded the copyright in return for administering the song in places such as South Africa and Rhodesia. Even though legally Solomon Linda was not cheated in any way, it becomes a question of morality. All that happened, because Solomon Linda was black. He died in poverty because he was black. He was exploited and forgotten, because he was black. In hindsight, the Linda family deserve to benefit from the creation of their father, which white American men have been benefitting from since 1950.

Journalist, Rian Malan, made it his business to pursue this issue, to help those white American men remember to whom they owed their careers. In his article, In the Jungle, published in the late 90’s, Malan tells us of his journey into the entanglement of copyrights, covers and publishing organisations, in order to figure out how and why this injustice occurred.

Malan traced the history of the song and discovered how the song got to America, and became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. He felt strongly that the Linda family should benefit from their fathers genius, based on the context of the situation, which enabled the stealing of his creativity and the rights to his creation. Malan wrote letters to both George David Weiss, the man who co-mutated “Mbube” into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and to Larry Richmond, president of The Richmond Organisation, that published The Weavers’ version of “Mbube”, “Wimoweh”. In a lengthy letter describing the little, that Linda gained from his artistry and how he was a victim of injustice, Malan sat back hoping that their moral conscience would propel them forward to do something about it.

It did not. However, Pete Seeger, from the Weavers (who was always aware of Solomon Linda’s involvement in the writing of the song) attempted back in 1950, to ensure that the Linda sisters would receive songwriter royalties. While Seeger believed the Linda sisters were receiving these royalties, they say that they did not receive anything other than a few breadcrumbs over the space of a decade. After Seeger received a $12, 000 check for the use of “Wimoweh” in a US commercial, he realised that he had been receiving royalties from the song all along, when he thought his share of “Wimoweh” royalties were diverted into a charitable trust. In realising this, he demanded TRO send the money to the Linda sisters. This sparked a series of events that now ensure the Linda sisters are receiving songwriter royalties for all their fathers creation of the most popular melody to come out of Africa and make its’ way around the world.

CEO of Johnnic Entertainment (parent of Gallo Records) Paul Jenkins announced they would handle the affairs of the Linda sisters, and organised one of the best copyright lawyers, Dr. Owen Dean, to handle their case. What was the outcome?

In February 2006, the parties involved reached a settlement. The Linda sisters would receive royalties for past use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as well as for future uses of the song. Legally, Solomon Linda is now co-composer of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and the song is recognised as derived from “Mbube”. The Linda sisters are now able to sustain themselves economically, and will most likely be able to do so into the future.

It is safe to say that without the investigations of Rian Malan, none of this would have happened. It most certainly is tragic that it even took that long for someone to recognise and make a noise about the fact that the songwriter credits belonged to Solomon Linda. How many other black men were exploited and had their creative efforts stolen from them? Plenty, probably. This is just one case in many. At least it is happy conclusion for the Linda sisters, and the legendary melody is credited to its’ rightful owner, Solomon Linda.


“Mbube”, “Wimoweh” or “The Lion Sleeps”, the most famous song to come from Africa, having been recorded by countless musicians and used in commercials, theatre and films such as Disney’s The Lion King, is a song the entire world knows. Born in a moment of other-worldly improvisation from a Zulu man named Solomon Linda in 1939, “Mbube” and all its imitation live long after Solomon Linda died, a poor man, reaping nothing from the millions “Mbube” would make but respect and legendary status from his fellow Zulu’s. And this owes all to the exploitation of the uneducated Zulu who knew no better when he practically sold his song for ten shillings to Eric Gallo of Gallo Records, unaware of what his rights were as the song writer and the fortune white American men would make from his song in the future.

A Lion’s Trail takes us the journey of “Mbube”, starting in Johannesburg, South Africa at one of the only recording studio for natives in South Africa, Gallo Records. This is where Solomon Linda and The Evening Birds first recorded the song that would one day become an international hit and one of the most played song in the US. Linda signs a little piece of paper that entitles Gallo Records to the copyrights to the song and receives a “petty cash voucher” of 10 shillings in return. It is in this moment that ignorance of the young Zulu man is doomed to one day become bliss and fortune of an American man named George Weiss.

Within the region of South Africa  “Mbube” sells 100, 0000 copies and becomes a hit. Solomon and The Evening Birds become superstars amongst the Zulu’s, reigning number one in all the local isicathamiya competitions. However, Linda’s journey ends here; unaware of that his record had made it across the world to the USA. By 1948 the record has found its way into the hands of Peter Seeger, lead singer of The Weavers, who went on to transcribe “Mbube” into “Wimoweh”.

It is in 1961 that a pop group fresh out of high school is introduced to “Wimoweh” and performs it in an audition for a record deal. Songwriter George Weiss is introduced to the band with the intention of re-making the song in order to popularise it. For George Weiss, claiming ownership to a masterpiece drenched in centuries of cultural history was common practice in the 1960’s and while it  was frowned upon if one was caught out it was not unaccepted as long as there was no one to counterclaim the copyrights. To song writers like Weiss old folk songs like “Mbube” were just wild horses and were fair game however, “Mbube” was not just another old folk song.

When challenged in a lawsuit in 1991 Weiss’s own acclaimed ignorance to the fact that “Mbube” was not an old folk song the Zulu’s sang when hunting lions but indeed an original piece composed by Linda, managed to win him the full copyrights to “The Lion Sleeps” as long as his ten words are used in the arrangement.

Journalist Rian Malan investigates these copyright issues and proves how others have unjustly made millions by adapting Linda’s song and melody into popular tune while he died so poor that his family could not afford a tombstone for his grave. It is estimated that “Mbube” has been recorded and adapted by over one hundred different artists and used in many commercials and films, including Disney’s The Lion King, and has generated something between 15 and 20 million dollars over that last 73 years of which Linda and his family have received but a tiny grain of that huge fortune. Malan questions why Weiss, a wealthy man, cannot do the honourable thing and make sure that the remainder of Linda’s poverty stricken family can reap the benefits of their father’s master piece.

Malan speaks to Peter Seeger in the documentary about the copyrights of “Wimoweh”. “The big mistake I made was not making sure that my publisher signed a regular songwriters’ contract with Linda. My publisher simply sent Linda some money and copyrighted The Weavers’ arrangement here and sent The Weavers some money,” said Seeger.

When asked about who received the royalties for the song Seeger responded that most of the royalties went to Weiss while he received a small amount which he ordered his publisher to send to Linda’s family. When Linda’s daughters were asked about this money they said that they had received money from the “outside” but rejected the claim that they had been receiving moneys from Seeger through a Jo’burg lawyer called Tucker since the 50’s but only in the early 90’s. It seemed that the daughters were receiving royalties from “Wimoweh” however they were not receiving any royalties from huge revenue “The Lion Sleeps” was generating, this due to George Weiss and his immoral claims to have written the melody.

Jay Siegel says to Malan in A Lion’s Trail, “George David Weiss was the person who actually did write the lyrics to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ but Solomon Linda is the one who wrote most of the music…”

As Rian Malan’s article In the Jungle is about to be released a tiny but of justice is served to the Linda family. Linda’s daughters receive a check of $12 000 coming from the use of “Wimoweh”. Seeger claims that he was unaware that he was still earning royalties from the song until he received the big check. It seems that instead of sending the money to Soweto, as he had instructed, his publishers had put it in a trust fund.

In 2004 it is with the initial help of Rian Malan that the family decides to sue Disney 1.6 million dollars in composer royalty shares for using the song in The Lion King on the grounds that under South African law the rights now belong to Linda’s family after his death. This case is still pending, however, the company which published Seeger’s “Wimoweh” has admitted that they had not paid any royalties to the Linda family and promised that they would tree thousand dollars a year.

While this issue has not been resolved, by informing the world of the blatant plagiarism of one of the most loved songs of the 20th century we are one step closer to serving justice to the Linda family.

souled out

George Weiss is perceived by many as a white devil in that he used the idea of a man from the poverty stricken Africa as a money making venture. He took the original song by Solomon Linda, presented to him by The Tokens, and changed the sound and lyrics of it. The content of the original song was placed in the childhood of the singing group Linda was part of, Linda Solomon and the early birds. It was a narrative about them being boys chasing the lions away from their fathers’ cattle. Weiss changed it to a song about a lion sleeping in a mighty jungle. Linda did not see much of the benefits of the song that fell from his mind onto his lungs and was projected out in a seamless falsetto. This could be accredited to the uncertainty around the copyright issues of the song. Where Linda died in poverty not seeing the fruits of his song, Weiss rose from his metaphorical ashes and made the song a widespread hit.

While that is a good argument to go by, Weiss is painted with unpleasant colours because his actions are seen as an injustice to Linda and his family through the lens of morality. I agree that too the extent of his music career he lacks a soul, and on an ethical level should perhaps feel bad about his choices that wronged in Solomon in however many ways. I would like to suggest that the music business (business being the operative word here) isn’t about ensuring that your moral compass is always facing north. It is a money making business which seeks to do just while providing entertainment by any means possible.

Weiss took Linda’s song and gave it modern appeal. He took something that was generationally relevant and gave it a contemporary feel for it to be exposed to a broader audience. He adapted it and added an element of timelessness so that Linda’s song would be known to generations to come. This generation includes me. I remember gathering with my brother religiously once a week in my mom’s room to watch the ultimate Disney movie, The Lion King. I could quote every line and sing along to every song. I would cry each time I saw Mufasa lost grip of the branch falling to his death into the stampeding cattle and get excited when Nala and Simba ended up together regardless of the fact that I had seen it seven days prior. I would experience the same joy every time the warthog and meercat would talk in jest and sing in perfect unity. I distinctly remember the first time I heard the adaption of Linda’s song as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Timon and Pumbaa’s a cappella rendition still reverberates in my skull as I recall the scene where they are walking in the forest happily bobbing and singing away as with Timon getting carried away in wailing while Pumbaa goes off trail and gets lost. This sort of exposure of the song is not likely to have been possible had it not been adapted to encompass an audience of children and adults alike.

No obligation to Linda was required from Weiss in accrediting or acknowledging him for the use of the idea of his song. If Weiss was to do so it would be voluntary. People view it as an injustice based on morality and ethics, yet business is about churning out good music as well as making money. Which he did. A lot of it. A contract was not drawn up between Linda and Gallo records or with anyone else that whose version of Linda’s song was made which makes sense considering the context of the marginalized and oppressed position of black people, highlighted in this industry. The extent of the copyright was a Linda’s name and the song title on a 78-rmp record. Hardly anything legal. Weiss was therefore not legally bound by any agreement spoken or otherwise. He simply saw an opportunity and took initiative. He made use of the resources within his reach. It may be argued that it was at the expense of an innocent man who should have been given that same amount of exposure, but Weiss just did what he knew best.

As for Linda’s family: they did not do much except be related to him, and even that should be attributed to nature. His riches, or lack thereof, were passed onto them by virtue of the fact that they share a blood line and a surname, not because they earned it. One cannot but wonder that had the contestation around Linda and royalties owed unto him not occurred would they know any different and cared.

Linda did get some form of acknowledgment for his work which was not a requirement but was done out of moral code and courtesy. It could have also been done to add to a gimmick where American artists would be seen working with an authentic piece from Africa. This would add to the anticipation and growing of the song. Weiss was simply doing what he was getting paid for. As much as many regard George Weiss as unjust riddled with no morals, I argue that the consideration of that would lose his true intent: to be proactive in his decisions and make a success out of a song that would have possibly just been a passing fad (with its lifespan lasting as long as the Weavers success) or just remained a part of oral tradition in Africa.

The original “mbube” was adapted to a contemporary version for the benefit of the music sphere as well as George Weiss’ career. It also exposed the song to the American population, where the entertainment industry was and still is booming. That is where it ultimately became timeless. By including “the lion sleeps tonight” in movies such as The Lion King and Ace Ventura, both popular at different times and to different audiences, it defied time and is still a familiar tune amongst my generation. In an industry where songs have the tendency to be fads he was able to take a song, even birthed from another man’s mind, and adapted to one of the most used and most sung songs of the 20th century.