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April 2, 2005

Independent Lens: A Lion's Trail

Hollywood Reporter (CA):

Don't be misled by the title of this exceptional edition of the PBS "Independent Lens" series. It doesn't have much to do directly with wildlife, at least not the kind that roams the African plains. Instead, it's a story of showbiz greed and those who suffer for their lack of savvy. In this case, it's about how the classic song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" made a lot of people a lot of money -- but the original writer of the Zulu-inspired tune wasn't one of them.

His name was Solomon Linda. He composed a tune called "Mbube" in the 1920s and first recorded it at South Africa's Gallo Records in 1939. But when the song was Americanized -- first as "Wimoweh" by folk singer Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and then by the Tokens as "Lion Sleeps Tonight" in 1961 -- Linda was cheated out of any credit, royalty or financial stake whatsoever.

The fact this was dreadfully unfair and even criminal goes without saying. It becomes tragic upon realizing that the poverty-stricken Linda died penniless shortly after the Tokens released their monster hit version of the simple four-chord tune that became one of the most popular and profitable songs of the 20th century. Filmmaker Francois Verster constructs a commendably balanced overview that details how a situation so grossly inequitable could have taken root, talking to Seeger and Tokens lead singer Jay Siegel (innocent parties in the equation) about the magic of the song and the injustice that surrounds the creator's lack of compensation.

Verster catches up with Linda's three daughters, who continue to live in squalor in Soweto, South Africa, and for years couldn't even afford to buy a headstone for their father's grave. There also is an interview with a South African journalist named Rian Malan, who is fighting to win Linda posthumous rights to his composition and rightful money for his heirs. But beyond detailing the moral and legal issues surrounding the song, "A Lion's Trail" serves as a joyous celebration of African music itself, with performances by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, among others. This has the effect of spotlighting the value and richness of a musical style whose practitioners are too often underappreciated and, in at least one case, appallingly undercompensated.

The acclaimed PBS "Independent Lens" film series will be showing this movie starting the week of April 3. See a clip, read the complete history of the song and find the schedule for your area here.

Posted by acapnews at April 2, 2005 1:03 AM