This story was originally published in the May 25, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone. It is by Rian Malan.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, a small miracle took place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa when it happened. He hadn’t composed the melody or written it down or anything. He just opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of fifteen notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of beeswax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit in that part of Africa.
Later, the song took flight and landed in America, where it mutated into a truly immortal pop epiphany that soared to the top of the charts here and then everywhere, again and again, returning every decade or so under different names and guises. Navajo Indians sing it at powwows. Japanese teenagers know it as ライオンは寝ている. The French have a version sung in Congolese. Phish perform it live. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as R.E.M. and Glen Campbell, Brian Eno and Chet Atkins, the Nylons and Muzak schlockmeister Bert Kaempfert. The New Zealand army band turned it into a march. England’s 1986 World Cup soccer squad turned it into a joke. Hollywood put it in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It has logged nearly three decades of continuous radio airplay in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, 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.
Its epic transcultural saga is also, in a way, the story of popular music, which limped pale-skinned and anemic into the twentieth century but danced out the other side vastly invigorated by transfusions of ragtime and rap, jazz, blues and soul, all of whose bloodlines run back to Africa via slave ships and plantations and ghettos. It was in the nature of this transaction that black men gave more than they got and often ended up with nothing. This one’s for Solomon Linda, then, a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave. Let’s take it from the top, as they say in the trade.
Brian Wilson had to pull off the road when he first heard it, totally overcome; Carole King instantly pronounced [the song] “a motherfucker.”
Part One: A Story About Music
This is an African yarn, but it begins with an unlikely friendship between an aristocratic British imperialist and a world-famous American negro. Sir Henry Loch is a rising star of the Colonial Office. Orpheus McAdoo is leader of the celebrated Virginia Jubilee Singers, a combo that specializes in syncopated spirituals. They meet during McAdoo’s triumphant tour of Australia in the 1880s, and when Sir Henry becomes High Commissioner of the Cape Colony a few years later, it occurs to him that Orpheus might find it interesting to visit. Next thing, McAdoo and his troupe are on the road in Africa, playing to slack-jawed crowds in dusty mining towns.
This American music is a revelation to “civilized natives,” hitherto forced to wear starched collars and sing horrible dirges under the direction of dour white missionaries. Mr. McAdoo is a stern old Bible thumper, to be sure, but there’s a subversively rhythmic intensity in his music, a primordial stirring of funk and soul. The African brothers have never heard such a thing. The tour turns into a five-year epic. Wherever Orpheus goes, “jubilee” music outfits spring up in his wake and spread the glad tidings, which eventually penetrate even the loneliest outposts of civilization.
One such place is Gordon Memorial School, perched on the rim of a wild valley called Msinga, which lies in the Zulu heartland, about 300 miles southeast of Johannesburg. Among the half-naked herd boys who drift through the mission is a rangy kid called Solomon Linda, born 1909, who gets into the Orpheus-inspired syncopation thing and works bits of it into the Zulu songs he and his friends sing at weddings and feasts.
In the mid-Thirties they shake off the dust and cow shit and take the train to Johannesburg, city of gold, where they move into the slums and become kitchen boys and factory hands. Life is initially very perplexing. Solly keeps his eyes open and transmutes what he sees into songs that he and his homeboys 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. Solly and his friends develop a following. Within two years they turn themselves into a very cool urban act that wears pinstriped suits, bowler hats and dandy two-tone shoes. They become Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, inventors of a music that will later become known asisicathamiya, arising from the warning cry, “Cothoza, bafana“—tread carefully, boys.
These were Zulus, you see, and their traditional dancing was punctuated by mighty foot stompings that, when done in unison, quite literally made the earth tremble. This was fine in the bush, but if you stomped the same way in town, you smashed wooden floors, cracked cement and sometimes broke your feet, so the whole dance had to be restrained and moderated. Cognoscenti will recall Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s feline and curiously fastidious movements onstage. That’s treading carefully.
In any event, there were legions of careful treaders in South Africa’s cities, usually Zulu migrants whose Saturday nights were devoted to epic beer-fueled bacchanalias known as “tea meetings.” These were part fashion show and part heroic contest between rival a cappella gladiators, often with a stray white man pulled off the street to act as judge and a cow or goat as first prize. The local black bourgeoisie was mortified by these antics. Careful treaders were an embarrassment, widely decried for their “primitive” bawling and backward lyrics, which dwelled on such things as witchcraft, crime and using love potions to get girls. The groups had names like the Naughty Boys or the Boiling Waters, and when World War II broke out, some started calling themselves ‘mbombers, after the dive-bombing Stukas they’d seen on newsreels. ‘Mbombers were by far the coolest and most dangerous black thing of their time.
[Linda] was the Elvis Presley of his time and place… He was the leader, the “controller,” singing what Zulus called fasi pathi, a blood-curdling falsetto that a white man might render as first part.
Yes! Dangerous! Skeptics are referred to “Ngazula Emagumeni” (on Rounder CD 5025), an early Evening Birds track whose brain-rattling intensity thoroughly guts anyone who thinks of a cappella as smooth tunes for mellow people. The wild, rocking sound came from doubling the bass voices and pumping up their volume, an innovation that was largely Linda’s, along with the high style and the new dance moves. He was the Elvis Presley of his time and place, a shy, gangly 30-year-old, so tall that he had to stoop as he passed through doorways. It’s odd to imagine him singing soprano, but that was usually his gig in the group: He was the leader, the “controller,” singing what Zulus called fasi pathi, a blood-curdling falsetto that a white man might render as first part.
The Evening Birds were spotted by a talent scout in 1938 and taken to the top of an office building in downtown Joburg. There they saw the first recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa, shipped out from England by Eric Gallo, a jovial Italian who started in the music business by selling American hillbilly records to working-class Boers. Before long he bought his own recording machine and started churning out those Dust Bowl ditties in local languages, first Afrikaans, then Zulu, Xhosa and what have you. His ally in this experiment was Griffiths Motsieloa, the country’s first black producer, a refined classicist who abhorred this cultural slumming. But what could he do? The boss was determined to sell records to blacks. When Afro-hillbilly failed to catch on, they decided to lay down some isicathamiya and take a leap into the unknown.
Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds cut several songs under Motsieloa’s direction, but the one we’re interested in was called “Mbube,” Zulu for “the lion,” recorded at their second session, in 1939. It was a simple three-chord ditty with lyrics something along the lines of, “Lion! Ha! You’re a lion!” inspired by an incident in the Birds’ collective Zulu boyhood when they chased lions that were stalking their father’s cattle. The first take was a dud, as was the second. Exasperated, Motsieloa looked into the corridor, dragooned a pianist, guitarist and banjo player, and tried again.
The third take almost collapsed at the outset as the unrehearsed musicians dithered and fished for the key, but once they started cooking, the song was glory bound. “Mbube” wasn’t the most remarkable tune, but there was something terribly compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodeled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally making it up as he went along. The third take was the great one, 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.”
Griffiths Motsieloa must have realized he’d captured something special, because that chunk of beeswax was shipped all the way to England and shipped back in the form of ten-inch 78-rpm records, which went on sale just as Hitler invaded Poland. Marketing was tricky, because there was hardly any black radio in 1939, but the song went out on “the rediffusion,” a landline that pumped music, news and “native affairs” propaganda into black neighborhoods, and people began trickling into stores to ask for it. The trickle grew into a steady stream that just rolled on for years and years, necessitating so many re-pressings that the master disintegrated. By 1948, “Mbube” had sold in the region of 100,000 copies, and Solomon Linda was the undefeated and undefeatable champion of hostel singing competitions and a superstar in the world of Zulu migrants.