ARTIST: Solomon Linda & the Evening Birds
Listen to it here:
This song has been very interesting to research because of its history. I had no idea I would know this song when I started listening to it, and had always assumed it was written by some white westerners to be an “African-themed” song that someone could make some money off of. Turns out, I was totally wrong.
Mbube (pronounced EEM-boo-beh) means “lion” and was originally a Zulu song. The haunting refrain sounded to English-speaking people like “wimoweh”, but they’re actually singing Mbube. The song was a huge hit in the area now called Swaziland, and sold almost 100,000 copies in the 1940s. The words, written by Solomon Linda, depict a boyhood experience of his chasing lions that were stalking his family’s cattle.
This song had such a huge impact on Zulu culture that all Zulu choral music later became referred to as “Mbube Music” and the original song became considered a folk hit. The South African record label who recorded it sent the song, along with other 78s to Decca Records in the US. Although Decca wasn’t interested, folk historian Alan Lomax was. He took the records to Pete Seeger, the American folk singer, who loved Mbube, and especially the refrain, which sounded to him like “awimoweh”. Seeger’s group, The Weavers adapted it and it became a Top 15 hit. The Weavers never credited Solomon Linda as the writer and his heirs tried for years to pursue royalties from the song that eventually become one of the most recognized songs worldwide.
Born in the Msinga rural area of what was called Zululand in 1909, Solomon Linda received his early education from the Gordon Memorial Mission School. While there he was exposed to ragtime music and especially the rags of composer Scott Joplin. He heard an African choir sing at his school and was inspired to incorporate the musical language of ragtime into the traditional Zulu songs he knew. At 19, he moved to Johannesburg, got a job working for his uncle, and started a vocal group of his own called Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds. The group became very popular in Johannesburg and were eventually discovered by a talent scout who helped them to get time in the only recording studio in Sub-Saharan Africa. Linda and his group improvised Mbube during a lull in one of these sessions and sold the rights to it for less than two dollars shortly thereafter. The song went on to sell over 100,000 copies in South Africa alone and made Linda a star.
Although Solomon Linda was a popular performer in South Africa, he received little compensation for his worldwide hit, either in his home country, or from Pete Seeger and the many other Westerners who went on to record “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. After collapsing on stage in 1959, Linda was diagnosed with kidney disease and died in 1962. At the time of his death, he was impoverished and his family saved up for 18 years to finally afford a tombstone for his grave.
Solomon Linda was also credited with inventing isicathamiya style choral singing – where a song contains falsetto lead voice, but is still driven by a bass voice, which has continued to be a popular part of African choral music, employed by groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Mbube – probably the most misheard lyric of all time! I LOVE African music, so it’s cool to hear a very early 20th century recording. I can totally hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo here, and I love the tones of the voice, especially the deep bass voices. It’s kind of a shame that more people (myself included) don’t know the origin of the more well-known iteration of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, so we should all be that annoying person at the party with the “did you know that…” and then drop this knowledge on them! Anyhow, the song is a classic, and this version is great.
Another song I didn’t think I knew until I listened to it. Though this song has become world famous and pretty ubiquitous, I’m sure I’d never heard this first version ever before. And I really like it. This was a cool cultural and historical listen, and aside from that, a lot of fun, musically. It’s much slower and less raucous than most versions we’re used to hearing, but there’s a lot of energy and excitement in the singing. I also love the background singers’ voices.
Average mark out of 10:
*A mark of 8/10 or higher means this is definitely worth buying!
Other notable versions of this song (include youtube links when possible)
The Great Miriam Makeba:
Ladysmith Black Mambazo:
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3 thoughts on “Song 19 – Mbube”
That’s a great tribute and I’m glad you know that song. Have you ever seen the Netflix documentary The Lion’s Share. That was a mind-blowing watch and you’ll never look at “The Lion’s Sleeps Tonight” and especially The Lion King ever again.
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Thanks for the recommendation, we’ll have to check it out!
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No problem. It was such a powerful watch with the origin of the song, the plagiarism, Solomon Linda’s daughters talking about the issue, and how The Lion King was the straw that broke the camel’s back with how they tried to sue the licensing company and Disney.
Speaking of that movie, Mbube wasn’t the only thing The Lion King stole from like how they ripped off characters from Kimba the White Lion. I mentioned one example in one of my Top 7lists. https://iridiumeye.wordpress.com/2021/04/06/top-7-characters-that-fans-are-reluctant-to-call-blatant-ripoffs/