'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' Actually Does Have African Origins

By | February 21, 2018

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The Tokens (L-R top: Stephen Friedland aka Brute Forte, Mitch Margo, Hank Medress and Jay Siegel, seated Phil Margo) circa 1965; Solomon Linda (tallest) with his group the Evening Birds. Source: James Kriegsmann/ Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; YouTub

In 1961, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens was a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The Tokens were an American doo-wop vocal group hailing from Brooklyn, New York, and their version of the song was perfect for the era and musical style. It's a gimmick, sure -- the clean-cut white kids in sweaters singing about "the mighty jungle" are clearly not sharing a story from personal experience. What's surprising is, unlike so much of the "exotic" culture that Americans consumed at the time, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" actually does have African origins. It's derived from "Mbube," a song written in the 1920s by South African artist Solomon Linda, and recorded in Johannesburg by Linda's vocal group the Evening Birds, in 1939. "Mbube" is Zulu for "lion."

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Solomon Linda was born in 1909 near Ladysmith, near KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa. Of Zulu heritage, Linda never learned to read or write but was well known as a talented singer. As a young man, Linda relocated to Johannesburg and formed the Evening Birds, who enjoyed a huge following.

Solomon Linda’s band was inspired by their native Zulu roots. Their distinctive music style was reminiscent of their humble upbringings. The chanted chorus of "Mbube" -- the "wimoweh" part -- was inspired by the traditional call and response chants of birds native to that specific part of the world. Other parts of the song were inspired by their reminiscences of chasing the wild lions who would prey on their families’ livestock at night. They had to chase them away to keep them from eating their animals.

The group was known for their four-part harmonies and improvised lyrics which worked remarkably well.  Linda’s improvised vocals were distinctive and soared over the top of the rest -- even though the lyrics to "Mbube" are in the Zulu language, Linda's high lead vocals are clearly the same pitch and pattern as the English lyrics that would later be written.

The group was eventually discovered by a talent scout and the rest is history.