Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Sad Tale Of "Wimoweh"

One of our local PBS stations here in Los Angeles recently re-ran a program on its "Independent Lens" series entitled simply "Mbube," the Zulu word that was the only lyric in the original chant that became Anglicized (by Pete Seeger, no less) as "Wimoweh."

I had had doubts that the topic could sustain an hour's worth of television; I was wrong. PBS had done earlier hours on "This Land Is Your Land" (one of the highlights being Bruce Springsteen singing it solo with guitar) and "Danny Boy" (less successful) that had worked moderately well. But the show on "Mbube" was riveting. During the course of the hour, maybe 12 or 15 versions from Africa were played, ranging from an almost mournful dirge by the composer's daughters (more on that upcoming) to melodic versions by church groups to a vocally stunning rendition by Ladysmith Black Mazambo (of Simon's "Graceland" fame, if anyone's forgotten).

The song was indeed a traditional Zulu chant, though according to Joseph Shabalala of LBM, not a hunting chant, as is often alleged. Shabalala believes it was a "tribute" song to someone's majesty, and I have read elsewhere that the song arose in the mid nineteenth century as a tribute to Shaka, the Zulu king who devised their system of warfare, established an empire, and handed the British one of the worst military disasters that their colonial armies ever suffered - a kind of a Custer's Last Stand multiplied by about fifteen times. Shaka was known, not surprisingly, as "The Lion."

The version we hear was codified by Solomon Nisitele, also known as Solomon Linda (above). On the show, Shabalala pointed out that Linda made a daring, even shocking, change to the performance of the song. The falsetto "verse" was originally a "ululation" - the curdling cry most often heard in the West as intoned by Arab women in celebration or encouragement but apparently common throughout Africa. This "verse" was done in a singing style that before Linda's version was done only by women. For a man to sing the part was revolutionary - part of what Shabalala guesses was the "tribute" factor - to the audience, or the Zulu king, or God.

The song came to America from Linda's record company, Gallo of South Africa, a subsidiary of Decca - which was recording The Weavers. It was Seeger who picked out the song out of a couple dozen on records given him by legendary folklorist and song collector Alan Lomax, and Seeger who pronounced "mbube" (very soft first "b") as "uwimoweh." The Weavers recorded it and included it on "The Weavers At Carneige Hall," and it became a moderately successful single, reaching the Hit Parade Top Forty.

The source for most of the remaining American pop iterations of the song was the first "live" album in 1958 of the then-phenomenally popular (if today often neglected) Kingston Trio, recorded at San Francisco's legendary showcase nightclub, "The Hungry i." Except for a slightly sophomoric and lightly amusing introduction, the Trio's reading of the song is pretty straightforward and respectful of the original, delivered with their trademark verve and energy

On "At The Hungry i" the Trio attributes the song to both The Weavers and Linda, and the song was covered a really surprising number of times by other performers.

(A partial list: Ian Cowley's List)

The problem that arose then and persists to this day is one as contemporary as tomorrow's newspaper - the use and ownership of intellectual property, a bone of sharp contention between especially the US and China, where literally millions of counterfeited CDs and DVDs of mostly American songs and films find their way into international markets from pirate copiers in China, not to mention the recording industry's near-hysterical attack on Napster and Viacom's recent suit against YouTube.

Black musicians were not at the time (Linda wrote the song in 1939) permitted to receive royalties, all of which went to the record company initially (Gallo). Linda received a few dollars for a song that has sold millions of copies in different versions world wide. According to Seeger on the show (a sheepish Seeger who did not remember whether or not The Weavers ever sent Linda any money when their version became successful), George David Weiss , who wrote the "lyric" "In the jungle, the quiet (or mighty) jungle, the lion sleeps tonight," owns the copyright and has claimed to have "written" the song. Seeger related that a US copyright court case determined that if those words were sung, Weiss gets the royalties; if only the melody is heard, the Weavers do. Solomon Linda and heirs - zilch.

The poignant aspect of it was that The Tokens' familiar million seller peaked in 1961; Linda, an accomplished career musician, died in utter poverty in Soweto in 1962. His three surviving daughters live in Soweto; they have recently won international copyright approval for the song, though both George Weiss and Disney are fighting it.

By contrast, the Kingston Trio's attribution of the song in part to Linda (and the fact that "At The Hungry i" achieved platinum status, selling more than half a million copies - an incredible number for an LP in those days) apparently secured at least a small amount of money for the composer through the auspices of his record company, to whom the money apparently was paid.

So it's all the more distressing that their "do right" attribution to Linda never made him any significant amount of money - money that might have extended his and his sick daughter's lives.

It's a sad and all too familiar and all too contemporary story. If "Mbube" appears on PBS again in your area, I'd say it's worth a look, if only just to hear the music.

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