The descendants of the South African composer of the original Zulu version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” have reached an undisclosed settlement following a five-year legal battle over royalties for what has become one of Africa’s most well-known anthems.
Zulu migrant miner Solomon Linda composed the song known as “Mbube” (Lion) in Johannesburg in 1939 and recorded it with a singing group called the Evening Birds, after which it became the first South African recording to sell more than 100,000 copies.
In 1949 U.S. folk singer Pete Seeger discovered the song and recorded it as “Wimoweh,” putting it on the international map, and in 1961 it became a global hit when American songwriter David Weiss added English lyrics and renamed it “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It enjoyed a renewed wave of popularity with a new generation when it was used in Disney’s “The Lion King” in 1994.
But despite all these recordings and the worldwide popularity of the song, Linda had less than $25 in his bank account when he died in 1962, and his surviving family members live in poverty. With the support of the South African Music Rights Organization, his descendants had been claiming damages of 10 million rand ($1.66 million) from Abilene Music, which holds the copyright to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”; the Walt Disney Co.; South African distributor Nu Metro; and David Gresham Entertainment, which distributed the song in South Africa on behalf of Abilene.
Lawyer Owen Dean, who represents Linda’s family, announced at a press conference in Pretoria on Friday that all the parties had agreed on a settlement. He would not disclose the amount but said it was “substantial.” It involved a payment of back royalties to the family as well as the right to receive royalty payments in the future.
Linda’s descendants would continue to receive royalties for a full 75 years after the death of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight’s” surviving copywriters — in this case Weiss and his U.S. partners — before the song fell into the public domain.
To protect the Linda family’s interests, a trust fund will be established in their name to be managed by Nic Motsate, executive chairman of the South African Music Rights Organization.
Dean said the groundbreaking settlement was an important “victory” for Linda and his family as well as for South Africa since they had proved that the hit song was based on Linda’s work and was therefore “genuinely South African, and that is something to be proud of.”