By JOHN ELLIS
The famous case of Solomon Linda and The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a dust storm kicked up by resident alien and all-round chronicler-in-chief Rian Malan in 2000, is once again in the public consciousness – this time on Netflix, no less.
Netflix launched its ReMastered series in late 2018. In eight episodes, the series aims to investigate “high-profile events affecting some of the most legendary names in music, presenting groundbreaking discoveries and insights beyond what’s been previously reported.”
It does just what it promises on the tin: intriguing and highly watchable human interest stories from popular music history. It’s the eighth episode that is of particular interest to me, however: a surprising and welcome addition to the ongoing saga of South Africa with a big budget, a South African soundtrack, and Rian Malan himself.
This should be mandatory viewing for all South Africans. It’s not just about music. The story of Solomon Linda and his spontaneous creation of the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa is also the story of colonialism, black exploitation, African cultural history, the American cultural-industrial complex, the absolute power of capitalism and overall, the story of both the old and the new South Africa. Here, in an episode entitled The Lion’s Share, all of that is rolled up into one glossy hour-plus television episode.
The story of Solomon Linda, a near-penniless itinerant Zulu musician who, in a 1939 recording session in Johannesburg, came up with the melody most of the Western world came to know as The Lion Sleeps Tonight, is, or at least should be by now, legend. This is mostly due to Rian Malan’s extraordinary investigative journalism and tireless work on behalf of Solomon Linda’s descendants, which culminated in a May 2000 article in Rolling Stone.
There is no need to go into the details here: you can read the article itself on Rolling Stone’s website, and Rian included it in his 2009 collection of essays, Resident Alien. The whole case is of course laid out, from start to dubious finish, in the Netflix episode itself, for those of you for whom reading this article is already asking a bit much.
Rian Malan is a central figure in this story. I am a slavish devotee of everything he writes, having first discovered him the way most people did, through his seminal 1990 book My Traitor’s Heart. The Lion’s Share is, in its own way, as much about Rian’s journey as it is about music and money, and his central contribution to the episode is a unique window on the soul of white South Africa.
The Lion’s Share is doubly fascinating: not only does it welcome Solomon Linda and a traditional Zulu song into the hallowed halls of Western cultural history, it also picks up where Rian’s original article (and subsequent Resident Alien postscript) leave off. While watching, one feels a growing sense of hope that the story ends well, accompanied by an unsettling foreboding that “this is Africa; nothing ever goes as planned”.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight was stolen by George Weiss from the ‘traditional’ (read: public domain) Wimoweh, itself a bastardisation of Mbube, a Zulu word meaning ‘lion’, which was Solomon Linda’s original song title.
True to form, things end in darkness and suspicion, unresolved and ‘pending further investigation.’ Initially, Solomon Linda’s three daughters ended up with a modest pile of money and a vague sense of justice, but over time the ‘victory for Africa’ that Rian initially envisaged (coupled with his hope of assuaging his ‘white man’s guilt’) has given way to a murky stalemate of dissatisfaction and mistrust. Rian’s observations at the end of the episode are the reason for this piece. I have transcribed them from the episode:
This isn’t a story of high crime, it’s a story of misunderstanding and dashed expectations, and it’s probably given our history in South Africa, possibly inevitable that it actually ended this way. The fact of the matter is, South Africa is a country where the various races don’t know each other very well and don’t trust each other, and where almost any dispute is inclined to become immediately racialised.
Rian Malan, The Lion’s Share, 2019
Again, this bit of Netflix is not mere entertainment; there are truths for South Africa here, a few more oddly-shaped puzzle pieces for the never-ending always-odd experimental puzzle that is our country. The story of Solomon Linda is in its own way the story of the colonisation of Africa and its aftermath, and I for one was grateful to see that story play out on an international platform like Netflix.
Rian Malan’s summation of the Solomon Linda saga at the very end of The Lion’s Share could not be more timely:
The whole case seemed to be infused with huge symbolic significance for South Africans, for a nation that had been on the losing side of history for such a long time. We’re still groping towards each other through the smoke of confusion and mutual misunderstanding. Nothing in this country has really been resolved, nothing’s been forgotten or forgiven. There are hugely deep and ancient resentments, these primordial fears… they’re with us every day, it sits on our shoulder, everyone in this country, it talks to them all the time…
Rian Malan, The Lion’s Share, 2019
A luta continua.
This article first appeared on johnelliswords.wordpress.com.