‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ or ‘Wimoweh’ is a tune that is incredibly well-known, it has been covered by numerous European and American bands who have made much money and gained much fame from this African song.
Solomon Linda was a cleaner and record packer working for the South African record company Gallo. He was a singer with his local choir, The Evening Birds and had written ‘Mbube’ in the 1920s.
Gallo Record Company invited The Evening Birds to record Solomon’s ‘Mbube’. It ‘wasn’t a remarkable tune, a dense meshing of low male voices which Solomon yodelled and howled’. The first two takes of the recording were not considered good enough and as the third recording was nearing its end it seemed that Solomon’s ‘Mbube’ was about to go the way of many amateur compositions, but then in the dying seconds of the recording Solomon improvised, he ‘took a deep breath, opened his mouth and the melody the the world now associates’ with the following words was born:
‘In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…’
Solomon was paid a tiny one-off fee for his song. Gallo Records of South Africa owned the rights to the song. Solomon Linda, a working class man with enormous talent, died in poverty, while the obscenely rich made themselves even more obscenely rich off the back of his labour.
Gallo Record Company issued ‘Mbube’ on 78 in 1939 and Solomon became a star throughout South Africa. By 1948 the song had sold 100,000 copies in Africa and triggered a style of African a cappella music, ‘isicathamiya’.
His song was covered internationally by many 1950s pop and folk artists, including The Weavers, Jimmy Dorsey, Yma Sumac and others. Solomon’s song went on to earn at least 15 million US dollars in royalties and film licensing. It then went on to earn even more cash for the likes of Warner Brothers, Ace Ventura and Walt Disney. A lawsuit was issued on behalf of the impoverished descendants of Solomon Linda.
The song itself is one of liberation and freedom. The incessant singing of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ became a compelling hypnotic chant at one FC match, of resistance and the promise of future struggle.
The lyric ‘Wimoweh’ was a mishearing of Solomon’s original chorus ‘Uyimbube’, Zulu for Lion. It is believed that Solomon drew his inspiration for his song from the sleeping king motif ‘Shaka’. Shaka the Lion, who is seen as heroically resisting European colonisation, is supposed not to be dead but only sleeping and will one day awaken and return to lead all oppressed people to freedom. Combine this with Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy, ‘arise like Lions after slumber’ and the right-wing press demonisation of leaders of the Great Miners’ Strike, ‘Lions led by donkeys’. The Lion image can be interpreted as a symbol to represent the working class. The jungle, a concrete metropolis where the grind to survive is equated to chaos of the animalistic eat or be eaten.
The Lion may be sleeping but it is not defeated or dead, lying in wait, waiting for the moment to strike and strike hard. The Lion will be emerging from its jungle lair and visiting Grantham in the forthcoming campaign. The home of the destroyer of working class lives may well wish that the Lion does sleep. But I sense there is a growing mood among the Lion that sleep is over-rated. The young no longer fear defeat, they want to fight and they want to fight now. There are old scores to settle and more importantly new injustices to right. Sleeping is no longer an option.