This is the only Simon song that is mostly in another language. In this case, Zulu.
The group providing the harmonies is called Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which means "The Black Hammer of Ladysmith," a township near the Eastern coast of South Africa. Simon saw them in a documentary on South Africans using music to resist apartheid. The group's leader, Joseph Shabalala (accent on the first "la"), wrote the song's Zulu lyrics, which I was lucky enough to find a translation of in an online Zulu forum. (Three cheers for the Internet!)
Simon, according to one source, sent Shabalala the line "We are homeless, homeless/ Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake," and he fleshed it out with the Zulu lyrics that make up the bulk of the song.
The introduction is based on a traditional Zulu wedding song, with re-written lyrics to continue the idea of homelessness, the source continues. Whatever it once said, it now says: "Webaba silale maweni"/ "Hey, Mister, we sleep on the cliffs."
Which might seem dangerous, but without caves or walls to prevent approaches on three sides, a cliff might do just as well.
"Homeless, homeless," the song explains the situation. This might be a literal result of poverty. Or it may speak to to condition of an apartheid-stricken populace, "exiled" without leaving their homeland.
"Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake." One would only see such a night-time sight if one were outdoors at midnight for some reason, say, as in not having a roof or walls. Also, the transience of the light on water-- visible but without substance-- also symbolizes the plight of the homeless individual.
The next lines are also ones that might be spoken by someone with no home: "Zio yami/ amakhaza asengibulele" means "My heart/ The cold has already killed me." "My heart" could be taken several ways. One is to say this part hurts: "My heart! It is in pain; it is giving out!" Another is to say that this is a person addressing himself, as in "I said to myself, 'Self...'."
But I think he is addressing his girlfriend or wife, calling her "My heart," the way a Spanish speaker says, "Mi corazon," or an English speaker says, "Sweetheart."
The cold already having killed him, again, could be taken on the level of literal cold and hypothermia, or on the figurative level of being "frozen out" of society. As we say in English, receiving a "chilly reception" or a "cold shoulder." This ostracism and disenfranchisement is certainly a lack of person-hood, a living death.
Then comes a phrase that I can't parse: "somandla angibulele" which seems to translate to the words "The Almighty" and "ukulele." Perhaps this is a reference to some sort of celestial music, as in the Western concept of "music of the spheres." Perhaps it is the instrument of God, the way Apollo played the harp. Or maybe a conflation of the two, God played the world as an instrument. It is difficult to say.
Then comes the word "mama," which I could safely assume means that he is addressing his mother, as in Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door."
"Strong wind, destroy all out homes/ Many dead, tonight it could be you." Working still on both levels, this could be the description of a natural disaster, or the idea that apartheid destroyed the South Africans' homes and homeland, driving them into isolation, poverty, and death. And don't think it couldn't happen to "you,' whether "you" live elsewhere in South Africa, the continent, or the planet. Few countries, indeed, are without a case of oppression in their histories.
The "Somebody say..." segment was based on a Ladysmith song that Simon liked. The lines ask for both rescue on one hand-- "Somebody sing, 'Hello!'"-- and resistance on the other: "Somebody cry, 'Why, why, why?'"
One commentator, who spent some time in Africa, notes that "ih hih ih hih ih" is a lyric that connotes hard labor or strenuous effort. If so, this could mean that the speaker knows it will be, to borrow the title of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "a long walk to freedom."
The song proper is now over, and the ensemble takes a moment to revel in the glory of having recorded this song in, of all places, London's famed Abbey Road Studios. "Yithi omanqoba"/"We are the victors!" they shout. "Esanqoba phakathi e England"/"We have conquered England!" And "Esanqoba lonke ilizwe"/"We defeated the whole country!"
Thus satisfied, they let fly one more triumphant whoop: "Kulumani sizwe/Singenze njani/Baya jabula abasi thanda yo/ Ho" This is their signature sign-off line, meaning, roughly, "We hereby proclaim that we are the best at singing in this style."
This is not the first time South-African lyrics have become part of the American songscape. The Weavers were introduced to the 1939 South African song "Mbube" ("The Lion") by folksong collector Alan Lomax. They turned it into the chant "Wimoweh," and The Kingston Trio and other folk acts picked it up in the 1950s.
Then The Tokens, including then-member Neil Sedaka, scored a 1961 #1 hit by taking the original South African improvised lyric "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight" and expanding on it.
Simon no doubt heard both versions, growing up in the US. But the song's journey did not end there. It appears on the Lion King soundtrack. It was incorporated, in 1992, by REM into their song "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" (the sidewinder being a sort of rattlesnake).
And the original "Mbube" version appeared in the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. The performers? Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The ensemble has appeared with Simon on "Saturday Night Live," has won a Grammy for a Simon-produced album, and has done everything from a Lifesavers candy commercial to several Sesame Street appearances. Thanks to Simon, the group has become true worldwide sensation.
But Simon, with The Weavers and The Tokens in his head, would probably just consider his championing the ensemble (he also produced a Grammy-winning album of theirs) simply repaying a debt.
Next Song: Crazy Love, Vol II