By Tan Shzr Ee
1 June 2004
You’ve heard the pop version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Now hear the authentic 1939 South African version by the Soweto Gospel Choir
After hearing The Lion Sleeps Tonight a few hundred times, you’ll never listen to a cappella music the same way again.
Or so you’d think.
The song is after all an official Earworm – a term invented by a 2000 American academic study to describe killer tunes that loop themselves in your ear for no good reason and refuse to leave.
However, the Soweto Gospel Choir is here to make sure that its signature tune gets another hearing – this time, on the composer’s own terms.
‘It started as a folksong by our own gentleman from South Africa called Solomon Linda years ago,’ explains David Mulovhedzi, 55, leader of the 32-strong group which performs as part of the Singapore Arts Festival on Friday and Saturday.
‘He sang it as Eeem, Boombuh! when he first performed it. That was before the lyrics were changed and so many people overseas grew to love it as Wimoweh,’ he adds.
‘We are not tired of the song, oh no, we are so proud of it. From that one song of Mr Linda, so many new songs grew out of it, spreading the music of our peoples everywhere.’
Mr Linda, a poor farmer, was paid a mere 10 shillings for his tune called Mbube (Zulu for Lion) by music producer Eric Gallo in 1939, only to have it consigned to the rubbish bin 10 years later by distributor Decca.
Mbube would have become extinct, had it not been saved by folk artists and collectors Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger who chanced upon Decca’s trash.
Seeger picked up the tune in the United States and recorded his own version with The Weavers in 1952.
Translated clumsily but musically still faithful to Linda’s original, the song became the chart-topping Wimoweh.
However, the Communist purge during the McCarthy era forced the openly-pacifist Weavers and their song into oblivion.
But in 1961, things changed. American songwriter George Weiss resuscitated the tune by shaving off the intro and layering his own 16-word English translation to the original music.
The Juilliard-trained musician, who knew his way around the industry, claimed copyright to the composition, renaming it The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
This version has since brought Weiss and the American industry more than US$72 million in royalties. Artists as varied as R.E.M. and Brian Eno have recorded it. Linda, however, got nary a cent and died in poverty in 1962.
The Soweto Gospel Choir can’t redress the injustice, but it is presenting the song in a version as close to the original as possible in its Singapore stint, which has been extended for a matinee on Saturday by popular demand.
‘We sing in our own way, the South African gospel, different from American gospel,’ Mulovhedzi says.
Of course, Mbube isn’t the only tune the two-year-old choir will be doing.
Peopled by Christians from 11 different African ethnic groups, it prefers to call its concerts ‘worship’.
American hymns like Amazing Grace and Oh Happy Day will also make the bill, alongside South African ones delivered in languages as diverse as Xhosa, Venda and Swahili.
‘But when it comes to singing, the message of our joy and emotion is universal,’ Mulovhedzi says.
Just in case you want a bit more variety, though, the chorus will add a pinch of R&B and hip-hop into its happy brew.
‘That is the way the world goes today,’ he says. ‘And we will join it with the spirit of the Lord in our hearts.’