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The Lion's Uneasy Sleep

South African audio installation memorializes Solomon Linda, forgotten composer of The Lion Sleeps Tonight melody.

In 1962, South African musician and composer Solomon Linda died penniless. He was so poor that he didn’t get a gravestone until nearly 20 years later. Despite writing one of the most recorded melodies in the history of contemporary music, which has been performed by musicians ranging from folk musician Pete Seeger to prog-rockers Phish to defunct boy band N’Sync, Linda never saw a penny of royalties from the estimated $15 million generated by his 1939 song Mbube. The name of that song may not be familiar to Western audiences, but its distinctive falsetto warble certainly is. The song was recorded in 1951 by Seeger as Wimbowe, then rewritten by George Weiss and recorded a decade later by The Tokens as the ubiquitous The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The latter was copyrighted as an original, which is, according to artists Ralph Borland and Julian Jonker, where the decades-long injustice to Linda began. In Song of Solomon, an audio installation that is having its Canadian debut in Vancouver as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the two South African artists have created a haunting memorial to the musician that’s also a piercing, subtle commentary on the world’s current intellectual property regime. “This is one of the most well-known songs anywhere in the world, and it’s certainly one of the most covered,” says Jonker, who is currently in New Orleans. “We want to memorialize Solomon Linda, hold him up as a great author, a great composer. A lot of the reason why we can do that is, in fact, because his work was exploited in this way.” The audio installation, which will be housed at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design running February 4 to 21, is comprised of eight individual speakers mounted at eyebrow level in a semicircle. Using specially designed software called Morpheus, more than 70 recordings of the melody randomly slip seamlessly into one another, creating a collage of the song’s original version. “One can know, intellectually, that there are hundreds of different versions of this song out there that are all recorded in different languages, but to actually hear it is quite something,” says Jonker. The installation’s effect on listeners is generally powerful, but also quite eerie, according to Borland, who says the installation feels a bit like a séance. “One of the most gratifying things about the piece is the audience reaction. They are moved. It’s a very familiar song that has cheesy connotations. When you hear the original Solomon Linda track, which most people probably haven’t, it’s very deep and haunting, and not cheesy at all.” Despite the installation’s content and its message, both artists deny that they are activists. “I think it means that we have to engage with intellectual property in a much more nuanced way,” says Borland. “We need to have more dialogue about these issues, and our project is meant to initiate more discussion. It isn’t an answer, but a provocation.” “Song of Solomon” runs from February 4 to 21, 10 am to 8 pm at Emily Carr University, 1399 Johnston Street, Granville Island, Vancouver; admission is free. More information on “Song of Solomon” (CODE Live 2)

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