A LION'S TRAIL

The Trail

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A group of men stands in a row, arms outstretched. 

A black man playing the guitar and singing. 

Two white men playing the guitar and singing on a stage.

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is one of the most recognizable pop songs in the world. But how many people realize that this American hit tune was actually written by Solomon Linda, a Zulu musician who never earned a cent in royalties and died in poverty? Directed by award-winning filmmaker François Verster, A LION'S TRAIL traces the music back to its original source, telling the story of how the Zulu song "Mbube" was transcribed by American folk singer Pete Seeger into "Wimoweh," finally gaining international recognition as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Verster began work on A LION’S TRAIL in 1999, when a South African TV show asked him to make a film about how “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” originated as an African song—a fact that came as a surprise to him. Once Verster began researching the original composition, he quickly became fascinated with the story behind the music. A friend gave him an audiocassette from Pete Seeger’s nephew that contained 21 versions of the same song. Verster was amazed at how these variations could all be traced back to Linda’s original four-chord tune.

A promotional photo of The Tokens, dressed in suits, in the 1960s.
An original publicity shot of
The Tokens

The Manhattan Brothers singing on stage.
The Manhattan Brothers on stage
in 2002

Solomon Linda first composed “Mbube” in the 1920s and recorded it at South Africa’s Gallo Records in 1939, after he moved to Johannesburg and began work as a record packer. Years later, Pete Seeger heard Linda’s song on a recording and Anglicized “Mbube” into “Wimoweh” in a new rendition with The Weavers. In 1961, the New York-based pop band The Tokens worked with composer George Weiss to re-title and re-record the song as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which soon became one of the most recorded pop songs in the world. Today, almost all international rights on the song are held by Americans—principally by George David Weiss. Apartheid denied South African blacks copyrights for their own work, and Solomon Linda died a pauper in the early 1960s. Today, his daughters remain poor in Soweto, South Africa, fighting Weiss and other copyright owners for their father’s fair share of the profits. South African journalist Rian Malan, who appears in the film, continues to champion their cause in the media.

While exploring the moral and legal issues around the song, A LION'S TRAIL is also a vibrant and joyous celebration of the heritage of African music. Versions of the song are performed by musicians across the globe, including the Manhattan Brothers, Solomon Linda's daughters, Pete Seeger and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who lead the Church of God in Africa in the South African town of Clermont. By combining stunning visuals with powerful musical performances, A LION’S TRAIL not only opens up the debate surrounding the origins of “Mbube” itself, but also reveals the controversies regarding copyright and ownership in the global music industry.

Update

Director François Verster filmed A LION’S TRAIL during 2001 and 2002. In March 2005, he reported:

Things seem to be looking up for the Ntsele family [Solomon Linda's daughters]: Gallo Records decided at the time the film was being made to cede all further income on “Mbube” to the family. South Africa’s top copyright lawyer has taken up the case and, with the family’s lawyer, has successfully attached Disney’s trademarks in South Africa; the case will go to court later this year. The Richmond Organization has announced that they will give future income on “Wimoweh” to the family. Everyone in South Africa now seems to know the story, and there has also been a huge amount of interest and support from all over the world following the film, Rian Malan’s Rolling Stone article and various further articles in the international press.

Editor’s update:

In February 2006 Linda's heirs reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney. This settlement applies to worldwide rights, not just South African, since 1987. The money will go into a trust, to be administered by SA Music Rights CEO Nick Motsatsi.

Learn more about the song >>

Meet the people in the film >>

Follow the trail of Mbube >>

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