Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Give props to Jews and Italians! They made a hit out of "Mbube" an obscure ethnic chant and "Wimoweh" an irritating musical windshield-wiper of a folk song. They turned those tunes into the enduring hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
Below you get a crapload of versions...four MBUBE, four WIMOWEH and enough LION SLEEPS TONIGHT to keep a zoo awake till morning.

Where...Excedrin users ask, did this musical plague come from?

Answer: Africa. 1939
Solomon Linda wrote and recorded "Mbube" with his group the Evening Birds. Guess what. Like so many artists of any color, his record label only paid him for recording the song. No royalties. Of course in South Africa, where blacks could not own property (or copyright) Solomon was doubly cursed.
An alleged 100,000 copies of "Mbube" sold in Africa, but the song was too ethnic to make it off the continent.
1952. A breed of white people, called "Folkies," began discovering "world music." Over at Vanguard and Decca, there was The Weavers and the duo of Marais & Miranda, both interested in hipping the world to African music. Marais & Miranda popularized "Marching to Pretoria," while The Weavers chose "Wimoweh."

Pete Seeger and his friends mis-heard "Mbube" as "Wimoweh." Seeger explains what the word means: "Legend says, Shaka The Lion [a Zulu warrior] didn't die when Europeans took over...he simply went to sleep, and he'll wake up some day."
"The lion sleeps" is not musical accompaniment to a Rousseau painting. That line, pretty much the translation of "Mbube," meant that one day, the French, Dutch and anyone else inhabiting Africa would go away and stop messing things up. Thus , leaving things to guys like Idi Amin, or the current maniac tribesmen who allow AIDS, murder, poaching of animals, the stealing of diamonds mass starvation, and spam e-mails from Nigeria.
Happily, most everyone who heard "Wimoweh" merely had a jolly excuse to shout "Wimoweh."
50's era kindergarten kids could hop up and down and think they were dancing. In those pre-karaoke days, it gave morons something to sing, along with "Jimmy Crack Corn," the first three words of "Tzena Tzena Tzena," and a solemnly clueless warble of "Kumbaya." Also in 1952, Yma Sumac jumped in with an exotic cover version, drawn by the "ululations" that linguists figure originated from the Arab-dominated top half of the continent.
Neither "Mbube" nor "Wimoweh" would be remembered much if it was not for a peculiar bit of musical and ethnic cross-breeding.

In 1961 Italian producers Hugo (Peretti) and Luigi (Creatore), a lyricist named George Weiss, and The Tokens lead singer Jay Siegal put together a little miracle called "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The quirky tune was multi-racial, using African rhythms, doo-wop, falsetto, and a female's soaring variation on classical "vocalise." Welcome in any stack of 45's that included "The Witch Doctor" or "Quiet Village" fresh lyrics pushed the literal lion imagery while the music and vocals erected a Brill Building in the South African veld. For an added twist, Frenchman Henri Salvador recorded "Le lion est mort ce soir," and there have been plenty of other nutty versions since (many in your zip file).
In 1962, Solomon Linda died. He had almost no money. His wife and children lived in Soweto in a dirt-floor shack where a mash of corn was the usual meal, and a great treat would egg. Meanwhile, back in the States...

Catchy, obnoxious and fascinating, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has endured for over 40 years, dragging in its wake, the legends of "Wimoweh" and "Mbube," two songs that almost nobody would want to hear more than once. Thanks to its use in Disney's mammoth hit "The Lion King," Solomon Linda's family was able to be the lion and take a bite out of a big, fat cash-cow.
Racism? Nah, it's the music business, that's all.
As with "Tom Dooley," if there was no name on it, it was assumed to be public domain. If you didn't file a lawsuit (as the "Tom Dooley" guy did) you didn't get paid. Seeger: "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..." Which isn't so unusual. Matthew Fisher had to wait 40 years before he got a co-write credit on "Whiter Shade of Pale. " To use the vernacular, "shit happens." Before Linda's family sued Disney, the twisty path of royalties tended to go to the Weavers, to George Weiss (if the song was sung and his "in the jungle, the mighty jungle" line used), and to the original South African record label (a division of Decca).

The fact remains that Solomon Linda's song would be nothing but a footnote if not for the way it was re-written and re-produced by a very commercial bunch of professionals as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." But hear the evidence yourself.
Are we so much more open to "world music" today? No. Whatever the music might be...a Swiss yodel, a polka, a Gamalan monkey chant or "Mbube," it ain't gonna chart if it ain't commercial. To put it another way, Paul Simon sells a lot more records than the people he used on "Graceland" or "Rhythm of the Saints."
Most of you will continue to spin "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" a lot more than "Mbube." If you want to call yourselves racists, go ahead. That's the easy word thrown at Pete Seeger and The Tokens. 

Your reward for reading all of the above, or reading none of the above:
A whole lotta Mbube, Wimoweh and Lion Sleeps Tonight, and guess what, on this download, nobody gets paid. Fair is fair. 

UPDATE: the link is long out of date. I was going to to upload some of the tracks individually for you...after all, this IS an educational blog...but all of it is streaming on YouTube. (And there are ways of pulling the mp3 off a YouTube video so you can keep it for your very own, including convert YouTube to Mp3 websites).  

The TOKENS - The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Glen Campbell guitar version - WIMOWEH

Desmond Dekker ("The Israelites" guy) Reggae-Rocks "WIMOWEH" 

Bizarre Afro-Big Band version: YMA SUMAC and MARTIN DENNY

TV Insanity: Dusty Springfield ("The Springfields") Pretend to be Afrikaaaaaaans

The Weavers - WIMOWEH

YouTube: Solomon Linda's 1939 version, MBUBE


louis said...

Thanks for the post and the zip and the information.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a great article..I had some trouble understanding the sarcasm, but I finally got it!! Thanks!

Woodworker said...

Great notes on the song. Please re-up!