“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 Tail 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 Tail 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.
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. Because apartheid denied South African blacks copyrights for their own work, Solomon Linda died a pauper in the early 1960s. Today, almost all international rights on the song are held by Americans. Linda’s daughters remain poor in Soweto, South Africa, but continue to fight for their father’s fair share of the profits.
- Francois VersterProducer
- Dan JawitzProducer
- Mark J. KaplanProducer