Monday, October 19, 2009

While Kev Sleeps Tonight, Learn a Bit About the Lion

I'm not sure how the word got into my head today; I'm pretty sure I didn't hear it on the way home from teaching, since i was listening to jazz on my iPod at the time. But as I walked in the door, it stuck in my ears loud and clear: "Wimoweh."

You've probably heard those syllables before; they're chanted in the background of what I suppose constitutes the chorus of the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which has been around for decades. I first heard it as a kid on a record made in 1971 by Robert John (listen here, and I'd seen it on those "Best of the '60s" compilation recordings by a group called The Tokens (listen here). They Might Be Giants glommed it onto an original song called The Guitar in the '90s (enjoy the video here; my favorite line: "Hush, my darling, be still my darling, the lion's on the phone."), and the whole rest of the universe got to know it when it appeared in Disney's The Lion King. (True confession: I've never seen this movie in its entirety; even though I have three nephews younger than the age of ten who can probably recite it line-for-line [or would that be lion-for-lion? LOL], my visits with them usually involve trying to beat them at Wii games or actually playing outside.)

As for other information about the song--I knew that "The Lion" had two subtitles: "Wimoweh" (which was obvious) and "Mbube" (not so much.) And after running across the Wikipedia entry on the song a few months ago, I learned that "Wimoweh" was a mis-hearing by American ears of "uyimbube" (Zulu for "you're a lion"), and the original song was written in the late 1930's by a South African named Solomon Linda who barely received any money for it (although that situation is finally being rectified), and there were many, many recorded versions of it in the U.S. before The Tokens' version ever hit the charts.

So today, after doing a search for "Wimoweh," I came upon this fascinating story by South African writer Rian Malan; it traces the development from the original recording of "Mbube" by Solomon Linda's group, all the way through its various American permutations and into the Disney movie, and he also recounts the long, difficult road it's taken to get Linda's family (the man himself is long gone, but lived to hear the Tokens' version of "Lion") the royalties that he should have gotten all along, It's a fascinating read; check it out; you'll learn a lot about the seamy underbelly of the music publishing business, as well as a rather comprehensive history of a song that nearly everybody knows.

And one more: There's also an amazing bit of trivia in another story on the subject: Two of the Tokens sang backup vocals on Robert John's recording ten years later; they helped create their own remake! (Perhaps even more odd: The bass singer on that record was a woman: songwriter Ellie Greenwich, who passed away a little over a month ago and was responsible for songs like "Do Wah DIddy DIddy" and "River Deep, Mountain High.".)

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