28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

Have you heard of Solomon Linda? I used to work in a pizza joint that played nothing but ‘60s songs, day and night. And though “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” came on over the speakers at least once during my workday, I had no idea of its complicated origin. Only that these white people were singing to this awfully black-sounding beat and melody. And, seeing as how I listened to ‘60s music all day, it was a safe beat that this was one of many songs stolen and repurposed for white audiences. Which, though it’s never been uncommon, was much more blatant in those days. Little did I know, the story behind the story had been intentionally buried for decades by people unwilling to give credit where credit was due.  

Born in the Zulu heartland of South Africa in 1909, Solomon Linda lived in squalor at the beginning of his life. Though he never learned to read or write, he was a musician from birth. When he moved to Johannesburg in his 20s, a black workforce hungry for good music welcomed him. Through the beer hall and hostel circuit, his name began to spread. He got a talent scout in 1939, and his group, the Original Evening Birds, recorded “Mbube,” Zulu for “The Lion,” that same year.

Unlike The Tokens’ version, Linda’s original is all acapella, and it’s all sublime. Three voices, a crisp, full, bold sound cutting through the stillness of the night. In the traditions of long ago, and now, the swell of the three basses feels elemental, like the founding of mankind. The type of sound each human naturally has the ability to identify with because it is the music of all our origins. Even without percussion, you can hear the drums. So influential has the song become, it has been uniquely identified as that of the Zulu people. “Mbube”, in fact, may have been the first African record to sell over 100,000 copies.

Based on that success, the song exploded, traveling, amongst other places, across the Atlantic to the United States. In the ’50s The Weavers did a cover of the song. And here’s where others began to make their own imprint on it. Pete Seeger, the group’s lead, mispronounced Mbube (EEM-boo-beh) as “wimoweh” and turned it into a folk song.

Then 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. Over 150 covers of the song snaked off of the original. Over 13 movies played a part in spreading the fame of the song.  If you’ve ever seen the Eddie Murphy classic Coming to America, you may also notice portions of the song that sound similar to the music at the beginning of the film, right as the camera is panning across thousands of acres of Akeem’s homeland of Zamunda.

Now, while others across the globe were raking in the bucks, Linda, as unfortunate and shockingly common in the case of copyright thefts this is, stayed poor. Solomon signed over the rights to “Mbube” in 1952 to Gallo Studios, and essentially signed his poverty check. Without the residuals he so needed, he went back to sleeping on a dirt floor. Two of his children died from malnutrition. The remaining kids were treated to eggs if they passed their subjects in school. Mr. Linda found a job sweeping floors.

When he died at 53, in 1962, his wife didn’t have enough money to cover the cost of grave and burial. He left this earth with $22 dollars to his name.

Funny that a group named The Tokens, would make its fortune off a black man who would have been the “token black guy” had he actually been in the group—a group that never met him in real life. But what Mr. Linda has given to the world, is more precious than money. His family has since been compensated, after decades in court. And that’s nice, but what makes this black man so excellent, is that he will forever be immortalized in song. And his history will always be attached, even if people don’t know it.

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.