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The Lion Sleeps Tonight: A History

Weekend Music

I guess anyone who's been in earshot of a radio very often over the past fifty years has heard The Tokens' 1960 hit version of this song. I remember seeing its name on an American Bandstand Top 10 list before I actually heard it, and being intrigued by the title. 


Some years later I learned that The Weavers, Pete Seeger's pop-folk group of the late '40s and '50s, had recorded it. It had some chart success and I think that's where The Tokens, or someone at their record company, heard it.


I had always assumed that the Weavers, or perhaps just Seeger, learned it from one of those field recordings that the folklorists of the early 20th century were always producing and discovering, the work of a collector who had gone into Africa for that purpose the way the Lomaxes had ventured into the American South. But it wasn't until last week, when I posted that Paul Simon/Ladysmith Black Mambazo tune, that Paul, in the comments, clued me in to its origin, via this very fascinating piece. The original recording--and it was a commercial product, not a folklorist's discovery--was made in South Africa, in 1939. Of course I had to hear it, so I went straightaway to YouTube, and, not too surprisingly, because everything seems to be on YouTube now, there it was. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds singing "Mbube" (you'll probably need to turn the volume up to hear it clearly):


I believe I hear a piano tinkling in the background there, though these voices hardly need any accompaniment. The article Paul provided tells the whole story of the song's recording, the money made from it, and where it went, which was not to Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, who were paid nothing beyond a very small recording fee. As the article notes, this unjust practice was standard at the time--American blues singers were treated similarly--and while this was clearly a rip-off, it was a practice that came into being when recorded music was still something of an afterthought to a performing career. 

Lastly, bringing the song full circle from American pop to its African roots, here are The Mint Juleps, an a cappella British group, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with an arrangement that brings together the commercial and folk variants.


 I absolutely love this clip. I guess I've watched it a dozen times over the years and it still delights me. It's from a 1990 PBS Great Performances show called Spike Lee & Co. Do It A Cappella. I taped the show when it was broadcast a couple of years later and we watched it several times with our children; it is, as they used to say, fun for the whole family. 

P.S. Here's the Wikipedia article on the song.


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I know I've linked to a very different South African group here, Radio Kalahari Orkes, but I don't think I mentioned that one of their songwriters is Rian Malan, who wrote that piece about Solomon Linda.

Actually I don't remember you mentioning them before, but that could be my memory. I'm having trouble getting YouTube videos to play on my computer right now so I haven't heard any of those yet.

"Kaptein, Kaptein" is really good.

Even though I don't have any idea what they're saying, beyond supposing that "Kaptein" is "Captain".

Very cool. Love that original version - I've got a couple African gospel records that sound like that. And the Ladysmith version is outstanding.

The first version I ever heard was this one, basically a remake of the Tokens' version. It was a big hit when I was 10 or 11, which makes it probably a 1971 or 72 release. It was one of the first 45's I remember buying.


I don't remember ever having heard that one. Guess I wasn't hearing the radio much at that time.

My wife and I watched the Do It A Cappella special when it came out - and I'm still looking for it on VHS or DVD. Great stuff.

I was about to say the DVD is available on Amazon, then I realized that it's just the soundtrack on CD.

The Weavers' version sounds pretty cheesy now.

Wikipedia says that the Robert John version came out in 1972 and made it to #3 on the U.S. charts. It sounds a little cheesy now too, I must say.

The African versions have that ululation thing going for them, too, which makes a lot of difference.

It took me weeks to get "Ammabokke" out of my head the first time I heard it. Then a few weeks ago I watched Invictus for the first time (the Clint Eastwood film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup) and that brought it back again. It isn't even in the film (or not that I noticed).

I can't make out much of their lyrics (although with Dutch I can make out some). The chorus of "Kaptein Kaptein" is something like: "Captain, captain, where is the train going? Whisper it in my ear. The dark makes me frightened and I want to go home."

On the basis of that the video seems pretty appropriate. That was the only one I listened to, because it was taking so long to load.

"that ululation thing"--yeah, a very different thing from just singing falsetto. The sound that the lead guy in Ladysmith makes is just thrilling.

Love this song!

Speaking of interesting vocal effects...


Once again I'm finding that it takes about a minute to download a second of YouTube video, so I can't hear it. But if this is throat-singing, I have to admit I find it not very enjoyable, a bit creepy.

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