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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
'Lion Sleeps Tonight' royalty row
Tight Fit
Tight Fit topped the British charts with their version
The battle for royalties from the song Mbube - better known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight - by the family of the song's writer, Solomon Linda, has been backed by South Africa's government.

The rights to the song were bought by Gallo records from Linda for a lump sum shortly after he wrote it in 1939.

But recent outrage that Linda's family are in desperate poverty, despite the song having over 170 cover versions, has prompted legal action, backed by both Gallo themselves and the South African government.

"There are so many people imitating my father's song without our permission," Linda's daughter, Elizabeth Ntsele, told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"My mother signed some papers, [but] because she didn't go to school, she didn't know what papers she was signing.

"They didn't explain to her that her signing such-and-such paper for what, so she signed because they told her that she was going to get a lump sum for her husband."

No royalties

Mbube was written by Linda while touring South Africa's black townships with his band in the 1930s.

Cover versions inspired by it and its derivative, Wimoweh, include Tight Fit's 1981 UK Number One The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and REM's The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, from their big selling album, Automatic For The People.

But having sold the rights away so cheaply, Linda died a pauper - and his family have seen little benefit since from one of the world's most recognisable songs.

Michael Stipe of REM
REM also sampled the song
"They said it was royalties but they didn't inform us from the first time, they didn't explain 'this money's for royalties,'" Ms Ntsele said.

She added that this confusion continued to the present day when artists sought to use Mbube.

"We do receive some of the letters from overseas. We don't know those people. They just contact our lawyer, they don't contact us," she said.

The story of the intense poverty Linda's family are suffering in has been brought to light before, but only now has their case gathered so much momentum.

Gallo themselves say they will pay the legal costs for the case to have royalties restored to Linda's family.


The family live a tiny township house of three rooms, an outside toilet, and an asbestos roof without a ceiling.

"When my father died there was no money. We are struggling," Ms Ntsele said.

"In our tradition, when somebody passed away we used to wear black attire, we slaughter a cow, and then they undress you. But we didn't, because there was no family, nobody who would take care of my mother.

"There was no money, nothing.

"My father died poor. He didn't have a car, a bicycle, nothing."

She added that she hoped to own her house if she did finally receive payments.

"At the present moment I don't have a place," she said.

"I don't know how much I'm going to get.

"My father's a tombstone. It's a shame, it's crazy. He doesn't look like a famous man."

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