‘Yo-la-la-li-li’ So begins one of the most intriguing stories about a song in history. Working as a record packer for Gallo records, Solomon Linda and his Evening Bird’s were discovered and sent in to the studio in 1939. Back then Ladysmith Black Mambazo were a long way off being invented so Linda improvised the song ‘Mbube’ in the studio using mostly the rich voices of the group and produced a song about a lion (“mbube”) which single handedly invented the mbube style of isicathamiya singing that the aforementioned Ladysmith Black Mambazo have made so popular globally in more recent times.
‘Mbube’, which had sold over 100,000 copies in South Africa by 1949, was picked up by an American musicologist, Alan Lomax, who played it to folk singer Pete Seeger who recorded it as ‘Wimoweh’ a mishearing of ‘uyembube’. The Weavers picked up on this and had some success with it. Then The Tokens added some slumbering Panthera Leos (to give them their scientific name) and hit the top of the US charts with it. There have subsequently been many covers of the song, included the UK number 1 by Tight Fit in 1982 which featured our very own Richard Jon Smith on backing vocals. It was included in the soundtrack to the successful Disney film (and subsequent stage musical) ‘The Lion King’ and was subject to a lawsuit where Linda’s descendents were eventually granted a settlement for royalties due.
All this tends to distract from listening to the original song and it is sometimes good to go back to the roots of the track, ignore the westerner’s idea of what an African track should sound like and indulge in the pure beauty of the real African voices that sparked off this phenomenon. There are harmonies in there and a simple joy at doing what you love best in the voices that few modern songs (or versions of ‘Mbube’) could ever hope to achieve.
Where to find it:
The Story Of Solomon Linda – Various Artists, Gallo Records (2001), CDGSP9
From Marabi To Disco – Various Artists, Gallo Records (1994), CDZAC61