Wimoweh ("Mbube")

Performer and production credits:
Karol Bennett, soprano; Leone Buyse, flute; Hannah Holman, cello; Susan Oltsman Koozin, narrator; Tricia Park, violin; Rod Waters, piano; Michael Webster, clarinet; Blake Wilkins, percussion.
Bill Klemm, videographer and editor; Kate Dawson, director.

Imbube, mbube Lion, stay away

Mbube is of Zulu origin. It was recorded in South Africa by Solomon Linda and his group The Original Evening Birds in 1939. Mbube is an example of the tortured path often followed by folk songs as they gain popularity and become part of mass market culture. The famous American folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger heard the Evening Birds' recording, created his own version of the song, and changed the title to Wimoweh—a mispronunciation of the original title. Wimoweh was released with great success by Seeger's band, The Weavers. In 1961, a rock band, the Tokens made an adaptation of Seeger's version, added English lyrics, and retitled the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The Tokens' song-writers Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George Weiss were credited as the lyricists and composers. The Tokens' version topped the charts worldwide and was recorded by over 170 artists, earning millions of dollars in royalties for Peretti, Creatore and Weiss. The song gained renewed popularity when it was included in the soundtrack for the 1994 animated film The Lion King.

Meanwhile, Solomon Linda had signed away the rights to his song in 1952 for less than a dollar. He lived in poverty, working as a floor sweeper, and died penniless in 1962. A lawsuit, on behalf of Linda's heirs, was finally resolved in February 2006: The Linda family was awarded a share of royalties from 1987 to the present.

As is often the case in indigenous song, the meaning of the song is open to interpretation. The Zulu word for lion is "imbube." The Zulu word "mbube" has been translated in contradictory ways. Scholar David Düsing translates it as "wake up." According to Düsing, the last king of the Zulus, Chaka, was known as "the Lion." Düsing explains: "Following his death, a legend arose that 'the Lion' was only sleeping and would one day awaken." However, Linda's youngest daughter translates "mbube" as "stay away." She reported that the song was inspired by Linda's childhood job as a herder, guarding his cattle against marauding lions. To her, the lyrics implore the lion to leave the flock alone.

In the original recording, Solomon Linda's voice soars over a chorus of men chanting "imbube, mbube." The arrangement by Musiqa's Anthony Brandt, created especially for this program, is adapted from Pete Seeger's recorded performance. Instead of lyrics, Seeger sings a "vocalise"—a wordless melody—over the chanted refrain, accompanying himself on the banjo. In Brandt's adaptation, the singer performs Seeger's vocalise and the piano takes on the role of the banjo. Meanwhile, the other instruments play echoes of the melody and accompaniment, weaving them into intricate textures.

Featured Work

Solomon Linda's original recording is available on "Mbube Roots (Zulu Choral Music from South Africa), released on the Rounder Select label (#5025). Pete Seeger's version is available on "Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits," Sony 65711. The Tokens' version is available on the album "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," RCA 66510. The Lion King soundtrack is released on Disney B0000CABJ2.

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