In the Jungle, the Unjust Jungle, a Small Victory
By SHARON LaFRANIERE
JOHANNESBURG — As Solomon Linda first recorded it in 1939, it was a tender melody, almost childish in its simplicity — three chords, a couple of words and some baritones chanting in the background.
But the saga of the song now known worldwide as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is anything but a lullaby. It is fraught with racism and exploitation and, in the end, 40-plus years after his death, brings a measure of justice. Were he still alive, Solomon Linda might turn it into one heck of a ballad.
Born in 1909 in the Zulu heartland of South Africa, Mr. Linda never learned to read or write, but in song he was supremely eloquent. After moving to Johannesburg in his mid-20's, he quickly conquered the weekend music scene at the township beer halls and squalid hostels that housed much of the city's black labor force.
He sang soprano over a four-part harmony, a vocal style that was soon widely imitated.
By 1939, a talent scout had ushered Mr. Linda's group, the Original Evening Birds, into a recording studio where they produced a startling hit called "Mbube," Zulu for "The Lion." Elizabeth Nsele, Mr. Linda's youngest surviving daughter, said it had been inspired by her father's childhood as a herder protecting cattle in the untamed hinterlands.
"The lion was going round and round, and the lion was happy," she said. "But my father was not happy. He had been staying there since morning and he was hungry." The lyrics were spartan — just mbube and zimba, which means "stop" — but its chant and harmonies were so entrancing that the song came to define a whole generation of Zulu a cappella singing, a style that became known simply as Mbube. Music scholars say the 78 r.p.m. recording of "Mbube" was probably the first African record to sell 100,000 copies.
From there, it took flight worldwide. In the early 50's, Pete Seeger recorded it with his group, the Weavers. His version differed from the original mainly in his misinterpretation of the word "mbube" (pronounced "EEM-boo-beh"). Mr. Seeger sang it as "wimoweh," and turned it into a folk music staple.
There followed a jazz version, a nightclub version, another folk version by the Kingston Trio, a pop version and finally, in 1961, a reworking of the song by an American songwriter, George Weiss. Mr. Weiss took the last 20 improvised seconds of Mr. Linda's recording and transformed it into the melody. He added lyrics beginning "In the jungle, the mighty jungle." A teen group called the Tokens sang it with a doo-wop beat — and it topped charts worldwide.
Some 150 artists eventually recorded the song. It was translated into languages from Dutch to Japanese. It had a role in more than 13 movies. By all rights, Mr. Linda should have been a rich man.
Instead, he lived in Soweto with barely a stick of furniture, sleeping on a dirt floor carpeted with cow dung.
Mr. Linda received 10 shillings — about 87 cents today — when he signed over the copyright of "Mbube" in 1952 to Gallo Studios, the company that produced his record. He also got a job sweeping floors and serving tea in the company's packing house.
His eight children survived on maize porridge, known as pap. When they passed a grade in school, their reward was an egg. Two died as babies, one of malnutrition, said his daughter Ms. Nsele, now 47.
"Chicken feet and pap, chicken feet and pap," she said. "That was our meal for years and years."
When Mr. Linda died in 1962, at 53, with the modern equivalent of $22 in his bank account, his widow had no money for a gravestone.
How much he should have collected is in dispute. Over the years, he and his family have received royalties for "Wimoweh" from the Richmond Organization, the publishing house that holds the rights to that song, though not as much as they should have, Mr. Seeger said.
"I didn't realize what was going on and I regret it," said Mr. Seeger, now 86, adding that he learned only recently that Mr. Linda received less than the 50 percent of publishing royalties Mr. Seeger says he was due. "I have always left money up to other people. I was kind of stupid."
But where Mr. Linda's family really lost out, his lawyers claim, was in "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a megahit.
From 1991 to 2000, the years when "The Lion King" began enthralling audiences in movie theaters and on Broadway, Mr. Linda's survivors received a total of perhaps $17,000 in royalties, according to Hanro Friedrich, the family's lawyer.
A lawyer for Abilene Music, the publishing house for "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," did not return repeated calls for comment.
But Owen Dean, a South African copyright lawyer who also represents the family, said the amount was a mere pittance compared with the profits the song generated.
The Lindas say they knew no better. Ms. Nsele said she remembered hearing her father's tune on the radio as a teenager in the 1970's and recalled: "I asked my mother, 'Who are those people?' She said she didn't know. She was happy because the husband's song was playing. She didn't know she was supposed to get something."
Indeed, few people knew until Rian Malan, the South African author and songwriter, documented the inequity in 2000 in Rolling Stone magazine. In a telephone interview this month, Mr. Malan said he was stunned "by the degree to which everyone was relying on the Lindas never asking the question" of why they were paid so little.
Mr. Malan's article embarrassed several major players in the American music industry and brought both Mr. Friedrich and Mr. Dean to the family's defense.
The Lindas filed suit in 2004, demanding $1.5 million in damages, but their case was no slam-dunk. Not only had Mr. Linda signed away his copyright to Gallo in 1952, Mr. Dean said, but his wife, who was also illiterate, signed them away again in 1982, followed by his daughters several years later.
Ms. Nsele contends the family was hoodwinked by a South African lawyer, now deceased. Mr. Friedrich said the lawyer appeared to have worn two hats, simultaneously representing the family and the song's copyright holders. In their lawsuit, the Lindas invoked an obscure 1911 law under which the song's copyright reverted to Mr. Linda's estate 25 years after his death. On a separate front, they criticized the Walt Disney Company, whose 1994 hit movie "The Lion King" featured a meerkat and warthog singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
Disney argued that it had paid Abilene Music for permission to use the song, without knowing its origins.
But for a company built on its founder's benevolent image, the case "had all the makings of a nightmare," Mr. Dean said — a David and Goliath story in which Disney raked in profits from the song while Mr. Linda's children toiled as maids and factory workers, lived without indoor plumbing and sometimes had to borrow from their lawyer for food.
In February, Abilene agreed to pay Mr. Linda's family royalties from 1987 onward, ending the suit. No amount has been disclosed, but the family's lawyers say their clients should be quite comfortable.
A representative for Disney would not discuss the circumstances behind the lawsuit, but the company said in a statement that Walt Disney Pictures had licensed " 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' in good faith" and was pleased that the litigation had been resolved "to everyone's satisfaction."
Some injustices cannot be redressed: in 2001, Mr. Linda's daughter Adelaide died of AIDS at age 38, unable to afford life-saving antiretroviral treatment.
"I was angry before," said Ms. Nsele, who, as a government nurse, is one of the few of Mr. Linda's descendants who is employed. "They didn't ask permission. They just decided to do anything they wanted with my father's song."
"But now it seems we must forgive, because they have come to their senses and realized they have made a mistake," Ms. Nsele said. "The Bible says you must try to forgive."
"Not 'try,' " her 17-year-old daughter Zandile corrected. "It says 'forgive.' "