Like ‘Mbube’, the tune which emerged from Solomon Linda and fell onto a recording track back in 1939 Johannesburg, Rian Malan’s Rolling Stone story of the man behind the song – or more accurately, the stolen copyright behind the song behind the man – is legendary. Those around the world who can hum the tune can’t always place Linda’s name. But they’re usually familiar with the epic battle with Disney – which featured it as ‘The lion sleeps tonight’ in the smash hit movie, The Lion King – and how the multinational media conglomerate was eventually forced to admit its part in the scheme and negotiate a settlement that finally gave Linda’s family a cut of the song’s earnings. Of course, this was no ‘single-fact story’, though it might have been if Malan hadn’t got his pen around it. But the single fact did boil down to this: a bunch of clever Americans took what they had conveniently dubbed a ‘traditional’ African song, transferred it through a series of copyrights and ended up all but cutting the original song-maker out of the deal. It’s not likely it would have stayed that way. The song played on South Africa’s – and the world’s – lyrical landscape without raising any legal flags for years, the song-maker dying in penury in the 1960s, his family living their lives much the same way. But rumours about a copyright violation were floating around the Johannesburg music scene in the late nineties. Something was not right, and those in the know knew as much.
Jay Savage, who was cleaning up discographic information for the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society in London in the late 1990s, says he stumbled across suspicious signatures on documents related to the copyright back then. And by 1999 filmmaker François Verster had been commissioned by SABC3 to do, he says, ‘a short piece on the transformation of “Mbube” into (Pete Seeger’s) “Wimoweh” and then (Disney’s) “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and in the process discovered there was a far bigger political/investigative story at stake.’ He went on to make a documentary, The Lion’s Trail, which aired on public television back in 2002 and featured Malan, whose story had come out in May 2000. Malan says he first got onto the story at a braai, hearing it from none other than South African musician Johnny Clegg. The point being, the Solomon Linda story had been out there for someone to grab. Someone, more likely than not, would have, eventually reported on the violation. But on other key points, without Malan on the case, it would have failed.
Would it, for example, have resulted in justice for the family? Malan hooked them up with a lawyer and followed it through until its just ending, all the way to the 2006 Disney settlement which, as he says, put the family members comfortably in the middle classes. Would it, without Malan, have had the resonance it did? With his deep, fly-on-the-wall style, imbued with his signature voice, rich characters, vivid scenes and rock ’n roll dialogue, we follow Linda’s biblical tale from one Sir Henry Brougham Loch back in the late 1800s through the folk singing days at Seeger in the 1950s and into staid New York conference rooms in the 1990s, all the way back to the Linda family household in postapartheid Johannesburg. ‘He’s better than Capote,’ says Bongani Madondo, the longform flaneur whose own style is, well, Madondoesque, noting that Malan holds his own among the old ‘new journalism’ crowd of Didion, Wolfe, Thompson and Talese. Novelist Justin Cartwright, who sat with Malan on a literary stage a few years back, commented in The Independent that the prolific journalist told the crowd he didn’t have much to say about his own literary success other than: ‘Don’t ask me, I’m a one-hit wonder.’
But Malan, whose only books since the seminal My Traitor’s Heart have been collections of his reported pieces, is being dishonest. He’s a consummate storyteller who reveals his tales as we sit around the campfire, slack-jawed and begging for more. Some complain that he makes up dialogue he couldn’t possibly have heard, that attribution isn’t always inserted – it makes pieces stumble, he says. But don’t mistake him for someone who hasn’t done his homework. ‘I learnt my trade working for American monthlies that cut off your head if you made embarrassing errors. Yes, to make those scenes as vivid and “real” as possible, and the reporting had to be accurate; if it wasn’t, you got red-lined by the dragons in the fact department, and that was very embarrassing. So, if I said, “It was a dark stormy night as John Doe stepped out into the cold, cradling his night-vision goggles and shotgun”, you can bet those details were accurate.’
It was the tail end of the glory days of American magazine journalism, which came along with gun-blazing fact-checkers, generous budgets and editors who believed in the slow simmer of good reporting. Malan spent somewhere between four to six months writing and reporting the 10,000- word piece. ‘I flew to New York to interview the Americans but they all stiffed me,’ he says of the copyright violators he tried to talk to. ‘Didn’t return my calls and left me standing in the cold and rain, fruitlessly ringing their doorbells. They were rich and lawyered to the hilt and clearly thought there was no need to take me or any Zulu seriously, coming as we did from an obscure country on the southern tip of Africa. It was like, you can’t touch us, so we’ll just ignore you. Struck me as profoundly arrogant and insulting. I thought, bugger this, I’m going to score an equaliser.’
As Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach note in The Elements of Journalism, it’s not just the job of the journalist to seek truth, to verify, to serve as an independent monitor of power and to stay loyal to citizens, journalists also have an ‘obligation to personal conscience’. Malan wasn’t about to let justice slip on this one. But there’s another element that is core to the practice, something often neglected by investigative journalists bent on getting out information in a crush that can leave even the most exciting stories reading like dry intelligence briefings. Journalists have a duty, say Rosenstiel and Kovach, to ‘make the significant interesting and relevant’. Taken together, it’s what makes Malan not just a great journalist but one of the best nonfiction narrative writers of his generation. ‘People aren’t going to read to the end of a long piece unless they’re engaged and entertained,’ he says. ‘You need to plant a hook in their imagination and drag them onward into the narrative. If you engage them on a human level, they’re willing to endure screeds of boring reportage between those novelistic scenes.’