Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds – Mbube

And now for something completely different…

The other evening it was warm enough for me to sit out in the garden, listening to the birdsong until it got dark. I couldn’t identify some of the sounds so when I came inside I started googling about for various combinations of “birds singing in the evening”. To cut a long story short I found this, and it’s been in my head ever since so I thought I’d share it here.

The song Mbube by South African singer and composer Solomon Linda was first performed in 1939 and was an immediate hit in his native land. Since then it has had more cover versions than I’ve had hot dinners, mostly with an English title The Lion Sleeps Tonight or Wimoweh, a not-entirely-accurate phonetic attempt to render the isiZulu phrase uyimbube (“you are a lion”) which occurs in the song. Solomon Linda sold the rights to the Gallo record company for just ten shillings in 1949 so never received significant income from the worldwide sales. The song was also used in the Disney film The Lion King without any royalties being paid, leading to a lawsuit brought by Linda’s surviving relatives (which was settled out of court).

There are two other fascinating things about this tune.

The first is that the “lion” referred to in the song is none other than the famous Zulu king Shaka Zulu (the subject of this famous poem) who acquired legendary status after his death. Rather like King Arthur, there was a folk belief that Shaka is not dead but only sleeping and one day he will return to liberate his people from their colonial oppressors.

The second is that the (mostly wordless) falsetto vocals were improvised by Solomon Linda (over wonderfully sonorous and rhythmically compelling bass riffs) but it was not until near the end (about 2:22) of this, the third, take that he was inspired to produce the melody that is now universally associated with the words “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”.

Anyway, here it is.

3 Responses to “Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds – Mbube”

  1. Ted Bunn Says:

    The American folksinger Pete Seeger has recorded and performed this song, under the name “Wimowe”, many times. I believe he is largely responsible for its being widely known outside of South Africa.

    I have read that he thought it was a traditional song, with no known writer to credit. When he much later found out he was wrong, he turned over his share of the royalties to Linda.

    On the one hand, it’s fair to criticize him for not finding out in the first place who deserved credit, but in the end he did the right thing, unlike, I suspect, many of the others who made money off of recording it.

  2. Fwiw there’s a free app from Cornell Lab called “birdnet” which I’ve found does a pretty good job of identifying bird song

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