'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' Actually Does Have African Origins

By Rebeka Knott
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."