By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent
October 14, 2001
SOWETO, South Africa -- No fans gather at the grave of Solomon Linda
Ntsele, the composer of the most famous melody to come out of Africa.
In part, this is because few outsiders ever venture into the rougher
edges of Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg where
his simple headstone juts from the cracked clay. But mostly, it is
because the man who produced a song the whole world recognizes is
himself a complete unknown.
"We are sad because he died without praise," said Elizabeth
Ntsele, the daughter of the nearly forgotten Zulu migrant worker who
created the tune known to millions by its English names--"Wimoweh"
or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
Elizabeth Ntsele, 42, didn't need to add that her musician father, who
went by Solomon Linda, also died a pauper. The family is so poor they
can't afford additional cemetery space; one of Linda's sons is buried
A half-century after it sashayed into popular consciousness from South
Africa's vibrant black music scene, the maddeningly catchy song "Mbube,"
or "The Lion" has evolved from folk classic, to pop smash for
The Tokens in 1961, to soundtrack fodder for Disney's popular "The
Lion King" animated film--raking in millions of dollars for various
U.S. bands, songwriters and publishing companies along the way.
Yet over the decades, virtually none of this bonanza has seeped back to
Linda or his family.
The Zulu crooner, who ended up filling cups as a "tea boy" at
a South African record company, died in a tiny cement house in Soweto in
1962. And today, his three surviving daughters are struggling to reclaim
not just their father's reputation, but also a fair share of the
royalties that the ditty--adapted by more than 170 artists--has
"Who knows what would have happened if our family had been paid
just a little money?" said Elizabeth Ntsele, a nurse at an HIV
clinic in Soweto and the only daughter to hold a steady job. Another
daughter, Philda, is an unemployed mother of two. The third, Delphi, is
a part-time maid in one of Johannesburg's suburbs.
"My father always taught us children to sing together,"
Elizabeth Ntsele said dreamily. "Maybe we would have been
performing ourselves now."
If such longings seem improbable, then music industry experts say that
Linda's estate faces equally discouraging odds in wringing long-overdue
benefits out of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a tune that climbed
U.S. pop charts via the green pastures of Zulu farms and smoky township
According to family legend, Linda began his musical career singing at
tribal ceremonies and warbling for coins outside South Africa's mining
recruitment offices in the 1920s and 1930s.
After forming the choral group Evening Birds, he joined the mass
migration of rural workers to Johannesburg, where he cut the original
version of the song, "Mbube," at a local record company in
Musicologists still disagree over the original meaning of the song's
simple but hypnotic lyrics. Some say "Mbube" is based on
traditional Zulu herders' chants to ward off prowling lions. Other say
the "sleeping lion" refrain concerns the fierce and legendary
Zulu King Shaka, who is not dead but merely drowsing, and who will rise
"There is no way to gauge sales that far back, but it's clear it
was the first real hit of the black music industry in South
Africa," said Rob Allingham, the archivist at Gallo Record Company,
Linda's patron in Johannesburg. "It was a very, very popular
record. It remained in our catalogs for almost 20 years."
Which is about the time "Mbube" filtered across the Atlantic
and into the hands of veteran U.S. folk singer Pete Seeger.
Intrigued by the choirlike "call-and-response" song style,
Seeger successfully rerecorded the melody in 1951 as "Wimoweh"--a
corruption of the refrain "iyumbube" or "you're the
lion." He gave Linda a co-writing credit.
Nine years later, Linda's brainchild underwent yet another
transformation at the hands of three Tin Pan Alley composers in New
York. This newer version, with sparse English lyrics added and retitled
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight," became an international hit.
"That happened about the same time Solomon was dying penniless in
Soweto," said Andrew Friedrich, a Johannesburg lawyer working to
secure royalties for the Linda family. "This guy never lived to see
his music's huge success."
According to Friedrich, the Americans have made some token financial
payments to Linda's widow and children over the years. But the widow,
Regina Ntsele, apparently signed away the entire copyright to the song
in the early 1980s without realizing it. She died soon after.
"A man from the foreign companies put some papers in front of her
and she gave it all to them," said Elizabeth Ntsele. "They
gave her some money to do it."
Those funds, Ntsele said, went to buy her father's headstone and make
small improvements to the family house.
Today, relatives still occupy Linda's cramped, asbestos-roofed dwelling.
Located on the dusty edge of Soweto, the home stands out from its
neighbors for its tidiness--and a trimmed, minute lawn.
In the United States, meanwhile, the ownership of the music that sprang
out of the lush hills of Zululand has been the subject of complex and
often secretive legal wrangling.
The three songwriters who came out with the English version of the
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in 1961--George David Weiss, Hugo
Peretti and Luigi Creatore--allegedly are paid the bulk of the song's
The New York-based Richmond Organization, a warehouse of copyrighted
music, is said to own some publishing rights.
Friedrich, the Linda family attorney, claimed that decades' worth of
royalties from the song add up to at least $15 million, much of it
squeezed from the Disney musical. Calls to verify such information with
Weiss' New York lawyer and the Richmond Organization were not returned.
Not much hope
"Morally, at least half of that money belongs to Solomon Linda and
his heirs," said Allingham, the music archivist. "But I don't
think they'll ever get it. They don't have legal standing. They're
dependent on the philanthropy of the Americans who took their
Mncedisi Ntsele, one of Linda's grandsons, isn't holding his breath for
Repeating the same pilgrimage his grandfather made from a rural farm to
big-city Johannesburg, he plans to cut his own swath. He sings the old
Zulu songs at weddings and in competitions. And he vows he will never
sign papers without a lawyer present.
"I tell all the people my grandfather used to be the boss of this
music," said Ntsele, 28. "Nobody believes me. They have never
heard of Solomon Linda."
Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune