A Lion's Trail

In the 1920s, Solomon Linda composed a hit melody in South Africa. Decades later, it hit the top of pop charts as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Lions trail 01
Independent Lens, Global Voices
Premiere Date
April 5, 2005
60 minutes
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2003 Portobello Film Festival -Best Documentary
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2005 News and Documentary Emmy Awards-Outstanding Cultural and Artistic Programming
  • Verster francois filmmaker bio

    Francois Verster

    François Verster has a broad 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 and 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 of his such as When the War is Over (2002) won awards around the world. 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. A Lion's Trail is his seventh film.

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    Jawitz dan filmmaker bio

    Dan Jawitz

    Dan Jawitz 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 broad experience in film and television production, distribution and sales, and he is currently the managing director of Vox Pix. Prior to forming Vox Pix, Jawitz was a partner in ICE Media Ltd., one of the leading production and distribution companies in southern Africa, which he set up in 1997 with producer Joel Phiri.

    Kaplan mark filmmaker bio

    Mark J. Kaplan

    Mark J. Kaplan 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, Kaplan 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, Kaplan co-founded Capricorn Video Unit in Harare, Zimbabwe, providing production and training facilities to the southern African region. He founded Intermedia in 1989 as an independent production arm of Capricorn and, two years later, returned to South Africa, working on a freelance basis for five years before joining UBUNTU TV & Film Productions. Kaplan later joined Rapid Blue and founded Grey Matter Media.

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    The Film

    “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.