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Program companion website: www.pbs.org/lionstrail
(San Francisco) — Everyone knows the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” But how many people realize that a Zulu shepherd boy who earned little in royalties originally wrote it? A LION'S TRAIL, directed by award-winning filmmaker François Verster, traces the music back to its original source to tell the story of how the Zulu song “Mbube” was transcribed by American folk singer Pete Seeger into “Wimoweh” and finally gained international recognition as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” By following A LION'S TRAIL, we learn the tragic story of Solomon Linda, the man behind the music, who was cheated out of the credit and royalties for his composition and died in poverty. A LION'S TRAIL will air on Independent Lens Tuesday, April 19, at 10pm (check local listings).
“This film began when I was asked early in 1999 by a local TV magazine show to make a film about how ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight' developed from an African song,” said Verster. “At that point, like most people, I knew “Wimoweh” but had no idea of the African song on which it was based.” After Verster began researching the original song, he became fascinated. A friend gave him an audiocassette he had received from Tony Seeger, nephew of Pete, the “author” of “Wimoweh.” On the cassette were 21 versions of the same song one after the other. “I was amazed to see how the entire spectrum of popular music could somehow make its way back to a simple four-chord tune. Perhaps this is possible exactly because the original is in touch with something basic and unadorned. To my mind the original has a grace and purity never approached by any other version—African or otherwise,” said Verster.
“Mbube” was composed by Solomon Linda during the 1920s, and first recorded at South Africa's Gallo Records in 1939, after he moved to Johannesburg and started working as a record packer. When Peter Seeger heard the African tune on a recording made by folklorist Alan Lomax, he took “Mbube” and Anglicized the pronunciation into “Wimoweh,” making a recording of it with the Weavers. But because South African blacks were told they couldn't hold copyrights, Solomon and his family continued to live in poverty. When the New York based band, The Tokens decided to make a recording in 1961, the record company brought in George Weiss, the man who added 16 English words to “Wimoweh,” now retitled as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
The song went on to become one of the most recorded popular songs in the world. Today, nearly all international rights on the song are held by Americans—principally by George David Weiss. Solomon Linda died a pauper the year following the song's release and today his daughters remain poor in Soweto, South Africa. 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 people as diverse as 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. Besides the music, the music we find a combination of energy, grace and sensitive visuals, which take us right into the heart of the characters' musical being. Verster's hope is that that the film will open up the debate not only surrounding the ownership of the song itself, but also around the reality that copyrights from the Third World have been exploited by those in positions of greater power and knowledge.
The companion website for A LION'S TRAIL features detailed information about the film, including exclusive filmmaker Q&A interviews, filmmaker and cast bios and Learn More links and resources pertaining to the film's subject matter. The site will also feature video previews and a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions.
A LION'S TRAIL Credits
Director: Francois Verster
Producers: Mark J. Kaplan, Dan Jawitz
Editor: Peter Neal
Other Camera: Brand Jordaan, Brian Wengrofsky
Sound: Tony Bensusan President Kapa Jeff Hood
Rian Malan, South African journalist, author of My Traitor's Heart Joe Mogotsi, lead singer and composer,
The Manhattan Brothers
Delphi Ntsele, daughter of Solomon
Linda, domestic worker
Elizabeth Ntsele, daughter of Solomon
Linda, nurse and sangoma
Fildah Ntsele, daughter of Solomon
Linda, grandmother, sangoma
Pete Seeger, folk musician, member of The Weavers, transcribed “Mbube” as “Wimoweh,” originator of Clearwater Project
Joseph Shabalala, lead singer of Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Jay Siegel, lead singer of The Tokens George Weiss (archive only), songwriter, owner of Abilene Music, lyricist to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
About the Filmmakers
François Verster (Director) has a wide background in writing, music, academia and film. His acclaimed debut as documentary director/producer, Pavement Aristocrats: The Bergies of Cape Town, achieved international success, and was described by the Variety 2000 International Film Guide as “magnificent.” In 1998, Verster formed Undercurrent Film & Television, a Cape Town-based company that aims to produce quality documentaries for local as well as international markets. Its projects deal primarily with human issues, and take innovative (and usually character-led) approaches to social and historical concerns. Other films such as When the War is Over (2002) won awards around the world; A LION'S TRAIL is his seventh film. The South African Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology described Verster as being “known for his outstanding documentary work in [the] country.” He has published poems, short stories and reviews, as well as articles in magazines and various international academic journals. He teaches a part-time documentary course in Cape Town.
Dan Jawitz (Producer) has been closely involved with many of the key developments in the southern African film and television industry over the past 15 years. He has wide experience in film and television production, distribution and sales and is currently the Managing Director of Vox Pix. Prior to forming Vox Pix, Jawitz was a partner in ICE Media (Pty) Ltd, one of the leading production and distribution companies in Southern Africa, which he set up in 1997 with producer, Joel Phiri.
Mark J. Kaplan (Producer) is executive producer of documentaries at Grey Matter Media and has been involved in video production and training work since 1979. He has been the recipient of numerous international awards for single documentaries and series. In 1980, he was appointed the first coordinator of the Community Video Resource Association at the University of Cape Town, the first community video project in South Africa. In August 1982, after two months of detention in solitary confinement, he was deported to Zimbabwe. From there he traveled, via Canada, to Boston where he joined the masters program in film and video production at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied under Richard Leacock. In 1986, he co-founded Capricorn Video Unit in Harare, Zimbabwe, providing production and training facilities to the Southern African region. In 1989, he founded Intermedia as an independent production arm of Capricorn and two years later, returned to South Africa and worked on a freelance basis for five years before until joining UBUNTU TV & Film Productions, and, later Rapid Blue, and finally he founded Grey Matter Media.
About Independent Lens
Independent Lens is an Emmy Award-winning weekly series airing Tuesday nights at 10pm on PBS. Hosted by Susan Sarandon, the acclaimed anthology series features documentaries and a limited number of fiction films united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement and unflinching visions of their independent producers. Independent Lens features unforgettable stories about a unique individual, community or moment in history, which prompted Nancy Franklin to write in The New Yorker: “Watching Independent Lens... is like going into an independent bookstore—you don't always find what you were looking for but you often find something you didn't even know you wanted.” Presented by ITVS, the series is supported by interactive companion websites, and national publicity and community outreach campaigns. Further information about the series is available at pbs.org/independentlens. Independent Lens is jointly curated by ITVS and PBS, and is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding provided by PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts.
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