A long time ago; 1939 to be exact, a small miracle took place. Solomon Linda was in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa. He hadn’t composed the melody, or written it down or did anything other than open his mouth. What came out was a recording of a haunting fifteen note song.
When that recording was turned into a record It became a huge hit in Africa, and later in the USA, where it mutated into a pop epiphany that soared to the top of the charts, not only in the USA but everywhere: Navajo Indians sing it at powwows, Phish performed it live. It’s been recorded by R.E.M., Glen Campbell, Chet Atkins, the Nylons and Bert Kaempfert. It has logged nearly three decades of continuous radio airplay in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, and it has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness it is now the a song the whole world knows, and is, in a way, the story of popular music.
Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds cut several songs, but the one we’re interested in is the one called “Mbube”, Zulu for “Lion,” recorded at their second session, in 1939.
“Mbube” wasn’t the most unique or inventive tune or lyrics, but there was something compelling about the underlying chant, a meshing of low male voices over which Solomon yodeled and howled the lyrics for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally making it up as he went along.
The third take was the great one, but it achieved immortality only its dying seconds, when Solomon took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with the words:
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”.