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February 23, 2006

The Solomon Linda story

The Evening Birds, with Solomon Linda at the far left, in 1941. "He was the Elvis Presley of his time and place," Rian Malan says, "a shy, gangly 30-year-old, so tall that he had to stoop as he passed through doorways."

This is a story about numbers: 10 shillings, US$15-million, 70 years, over 160 covers and three centuries of continuous radio air play. It's the story of a song we all know, the impoverished Zulu migrant worker who wrote it, the musicians and record companies who raked in millions for it, and the almost 70 years it has taken for his family to see justice done.

The song is Mbube, produced by Zulu musician Solomon Linda in 1939. It's estimated that Linda received a total of 10 shillings for the song. Yet the tune went on to become Pete Seeger's runaway hit Wimoweh, then the Tokens' The Lion Sleeps Tonight, on to at least 160 covers, before ending up in the voices of Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog characters in Disney's classic movie and Broadway hit The Lion King.

Last Friday, Linda's legacy finally received some justice. After a six-year battle his surviving daughters Delphi, Elizabeth and Fildah, who had claimed almost R10-million from copyright holder Abilene Music, settled their dispute for an undisclosed sum. The settlement involves back payment of royalties to the family and the right to receive future payments for worldwide use.

The basis for the family's case was the Dickens Provision, which stipulates that 25 years after a creator's death, all rights should revert to the heirs, who would then be entitled to renegotiate deals and secure better royalty terms. The Dickens Provision was inserted into the Copyright Act of Great Britain - and its former colonies - in the early 20th century after outrage that the works of Charles Dickens were generating huge profits for publishing companies while his family was destitute.

Enter Rolling Stone magazine

"The settlement came about as a result of pressure from various sectors of society, both in South Africa and overseas," family lawyer Hanro Friedrich told Business Day. It's unlikely that this pressure would have come to bear if it hadn't been for Rian Malan, South African journalist and author of the bestselling My Traitor's Heart.

In 2000 Malan delved deep into the story of Solomon Linda and his remarkable song for Rolling Stone magazine, producing a four-part expose that brought world attention to the song and the injustice done to Linda and his family. It was Malan who, after consulting widely with experts on music copyright, came up with the $15-million royalties estimate. "It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa," Malan says of Mbube, "a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows.

Solomon Linda grew up in the Msinga in the heartland of rural Zululand. A typical rural kid of the time, he herded cattle and attended the Gordon Memorial mission school. But he was also strongly influenced by the new syncopated music that had swept across South Africa from the US since the 1880s, working it into the Zulu songs he and his friends sang at weddings and feasts.

In the 1930s Linda joined the stream of young African men who left their homesteads to find menial work in Johannesburg, a sprawling gold-mining town hungry for cheap labour. "Life is initially very perplexing," Malan says. "Solly keeps his eyes open and transmutes what he sees into songs that he and his home boys perform a cappella on weekends. "He has songs about work, songs about crime, songs about how banks rob you by giving you paper in exchange for real money, songs about how rudely the whites treat you when you go to get your pass stamped. People like the music."

Linda's popularity grew, and in 1938 he and his band the Evening Birds - "a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes" - were spotted by a talent scout. They were taken to sub-Saharan Africa's only recording studio - owned by Italian Eric Gallo, the founder of Gallo Records - to cut a number of songs.

In 1939, during the band's second recording session, Linda was "visited by angels", Malan says. He opened his mouth and produced a three-chord song with lyrics something like "Lion! Ha! You're a lion!", inspired by boyhood memories of chasing lions stalking the family cattle. The song was called Mbube, Zulu for "lion". "The third take was the great one," Malan writes of that recording session, "but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words:

"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight."

At the time, payment for record deals was primitive. Unknown acts signed no contracts and received no royalties. They were given what the record company determined their work was worth and that was it. Malan estimates that Linda was paid about 10 shillings for the song. All the subsequent income Mbube derived - in its first incarnation - went straight into the pockets of Eric Gallo.

The song did pretty well for itself. Released on 10-inch 78rpm records, it went on sale as Hitler invaded Poland, and slowly picked up a sizeable following. By 1948 Mbube had sold some 100 000 copies in South Africa, requiring so many pressings that the master eventually disintegrated.

Solomon Linda became a local superstar in the world of Zulu migrants. "He was the Elvis Presley of his time and place," Malan says, "a shy, gangly 30-year-old, so tall that he had to stoop as he passed through doorways." Working at a menial job in Gallo's packing plant, he continued to perform until he collapsed on stage in 1959, struck down by kidney disease. He grew so sick he had to stop performing, and died on 8 October 1962 aged 53

Read the Rolling Stone feature here

Posted by acapnews at February 23, 2006 12:04 AM