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A LION'S TRAIL BROADCAST ON SABC3 (article first published : 2003-04-24)

Everyone knows the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight but how many people realise that it was originally written by a Zulu shepherd boy who hardly saw a penny?

The final version of A Lion's Trail, a 55-minute documentary directed by award-winning local filmmaker François Verster, will be screened on SABC3 on April 28. The film tells the story of how the Zulu isicathamiya song Mbube was transcribed by American folk singer Pete Seeger into Wimoweh and finally gained international recognition as The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The film was produced by Undercurrent Film & Television, Rapid Blue and Ice Media, in co-production with SABC3 and the BBC and in association with the Industrial Development Council of South Africa.

Mbube was composed by Solomon Linda during the 1920s, and was first recorded at Gallo Records in 1939, after he moved to Johannesburg and started working as a record packer. Today, nearly all international rights on the song are held by Americans - principally by George David Weiss, the man who added the 16 English words to Wimoweh - while the daughters of Solomon Linda live in poverty in Zola, Soweto.

While exploring the moral and legal issues around the song, the film is also a vibrant and joyous celebration of the heritage of African music. Versions of the song are performed by people as diverse as the Manhattan Brothers, the daughters of Solomon Linda, Pete Seeger, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo leading the Church of God in Africa in Clermont outside Durban.

Also featured is journalist Rian Malan who has spent three years trying to achieve some resettlement of the affairs around the song. He has no qualms about calling Weiss a "hypocrite" and vocally champions a cause that with the Linda family instead finds expression in a heart-wrenching rendition of their father and grandfather's song.

The film is emotionally powerful and vibrant, and asks the viewer to think anew about the position of African music in the world. It has been described as "going straight to the heart of neo-colonial cultural politics today." Says Verster: "We wanted to make a film that pays tribute to both Solomon Linda and the greater moral cause involved, but which also has a life of its own in the present."

Apart from broadcast on SABC, the film is also being screened on BBC (UK), SBS (Australia), CBC (Canada), YLE (Finland), NOS (Holland), DR (Denmark) and RTBF (Belgium). CBC's Newsworld unit described the film as "not only cinematically beautiful, but morally so." It screened at FESPACO in Burkina Faso earlier this year, is the only film representing South Africa at INPUT, the worldwide television conference in Aarhus, Denmark, in May, and is also being screened at the Grahamstown Film Festival, the Norwegian Documentary Film Festival and the Manchester Commonwealth Film Festival.

The film will be presented by the National Film and Video Foundation - the original backer of the project - at their stand in Cannes this year.




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