Tracing the History of Malaika Song in Kenya, Tanzania, Burma, and Cuba

Updated on April 9, 2018
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Alfred is a long-time teacher and computer enthusiast who works with and troubleshoots a wide range of computing devices.

Malaika song is perhaps the most renowned love ballad to have come out of East Africa, if not the whole continent. It has been redone by over seventy African and international artists. They include Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo, Safari Sound Band, Nana Mouskouri, Harry Belafonte and Boney M.

Malaika (Angel) highlights the theme of love viz-a-viz poverty in contemporary Africa. It narrates a sad story of a young man whose love for his dream angel is doomed because he is poor.

For him to marry her, the singer, only identified by the first person I, should pay bride-price in order to get betrothed. The song is probably the last gasp attempt to win her over, even when he and society know it would never happen.

While the sentimentality of the song is captivating enough, the story behind its creation is shrouded in age-long controversy.

The controversy is about who actually composed it.

Despite the formal recognition that Fadhili William (RIP) composed it, different artists and persons continue to contest it.

In order to grasp the story of Malaika better, it is perhaps wise to see it in the eyes of the people closely associated with it.

We trace personal histories of the two men who are closely associated with its authorship:

  • Fadhili William
  • Adam Salim

The question therefore is, who actually composed it?

Fadhili William

Fadhili William was born Fadhili William Mdawida On November 11th, 1938 in Kenya. He passed on February 11th, 2001. RIP

Many Kenyans believe Fadhili William was the original composer of Malaika song, and he, of course, had a story to tell to prove this.

It all happened when he was still in school and fell in love with a girl named Fanny, whom he called Malaika.

While their love blossomed, Fadhilli William claimed he was unable to pay for her dowry because he was poor and his father had died when he was only two years old.

He was, therefore, unable to raise the dowry required in order to marry Fanny. She was subsequently married off to a rich man.

Fadhili William composed the song to remember her, and Fanny listened to it on the radio. Her husband too listened to it though unaware of its true meaning.

Fadhili William (left)
Fadhili William (left) | Source

Adam Salim

Adam Salim (RIP) was born in 1916 in Tanzania and claimed he was the original composer of Malaika song. Until today, many Tanzanians believe Salim wrote the song and should be recognized for it.

Adam Salim too had a story to tell in regards to the song.

His story goes thus that he fell in love with a girl named Halima and because he could not afford to pay a dowry for her, she was made to marry a rich Indian man.

He could do nothing about his dilemma and like Fadhili Wiliam, decided to compose a song for her.

Very little is known about Adam Salim and how he looked, but that he went back to his home-town of Moshi in Tanzania where he married and settled down with another woman.

The Original Malaika by Fadhili Williams in 1960s

Stages in Fadhili William and Adam Salim Rivalry

The dispute regarding the origin of Malaika is particularly big in East Africa simply because it pits Kenya against Tanzania, two countries that are musical rivals for decades.

None of the two countries believe the song should belong to the other.
Salim was a mechanic and performed in Nairobi night clubs where he claims to have debuted Malaika song in early1950s.

According to reports from Salim camp, William was one of his young proteges, who must have listened and copied Malaika ballad.

Salim claimed that William beat him to Columbia East African Music Company studios where he recorded the initial two verses of the song in 1959.

The story also goes that William cashed Salim 60 Kenyan shillings as a token of appreciation.

Fadhili William again recorded Malaika in 1960 with his famous Jambo Boys and re-did it a few times later in the latter years.

So, Who Actually Composed Malaika Song?

Besides the rivalry between Fadhili William and Adam Salim, claims and counter claims have been told dating back to 1940s as to who exactly composed Malaika.

The dispute is reminiscent of the popular Imbube song in The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Linda, who died without recognition for his work.

To date, no individual is authoritatively credited for 'composing' Malaika though copyright and royalties are attributed to Fadhili William.

Its authorship is contested by about twenty individuals and companies. Popular among these include Grant Charo, Williams's brother-in-law, and Lucas Tututu who hailed from Mombasa.

Grant Charo is actually credited for recording the song even before Fadhili William did. In this first recording, William reportedly played the mandolin.

A Creative Remake of Malaika from Tanzania

The dispute over who wrote the song went silent until 1986 when William was challenged in succession to prove ownership of the song by Charo and Adam Salim families.

The ensuing court appearances ended in favor of Fadhili Williams though.

Miriam Makeba and Malaika Dispute

Another composer that was closely associated with Malaika ballad is the world famous South African musician, Miriam Makeba: (1932 - 2008)

Makeba’s encounter with the song started in 1963 when she was invited to perform during Kenya’s Jamuhuri (Independence) Day celebrations in the company of Harry Belafonte.

Miriam Makeba (RIP) rendition of Malaika song popularized it globbaly
Miriam Makeba (RIP) rendition of Malaika song popularized it globbaly | Source

Apart from performing other songs, Miriam Makeba was invited to the stage by the then flamboyant Kenyan politician - Tom Mboya, to sing Malaika.

Before and during the ceremony, David Amunga a Kenyan veteran musician was subscribed to help her master the Swahili words.

Tom Mboya also scribbled the lyrics of Malaika to make the ballad complete. He inadvertently added the pesa verse which was not part of the original song.

The verse was actually smuggled from another of Fadhili William's songs. He added this third verse to his later recordings of the song.

Meanwhile, Makeba took liberty to record the song in USA when she flew from Kenya!

This did not go down well with Fadhili William who opted for legal recourse. With the help of American Peter Colmore and his own producer Charles Worrod, he contested Makeba in courts of law and triumphed.

Later on, in her recordings, Miriam Makeba irked Kenyans when she alluded to the song being Tanzanian in her live performance Homeland CD.

Who do you think composed Malaika?

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Malaika by Miriam Makeba From 1970s

The Burmese and Cuban Twist to the Story Of Malaika Song

One last popular twist to the story claims the song was composed far away in Burma and Cuba and was only smuggled to the East African coast in 1940s, after the 2nd World War.

Malaika was apparently a popular ballad amongst the men in uniform who served under the British Kings African Rifles.

One artist associated with this version of the story was Fundi Konde (RIP) who had been recruited to entertain the soldiers and later performed it in bars around Nairobi after the end of the war. He did not claim to have written it.

Elsewhere, the Cuban twist to the story claims that Malaika tune is actually Spanish by origin, owing to its Bolero-Bossa Nova style. Bossa Nova beat is much reminiscent of both Cuban and Mexican musical heritage.

Strangely though, the song has never been claimed by any one in both Cuba and Burma.

Do you believe Malaika to be Cuban or Burmese?

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Other Artists Who Recorded Versions of Malaika

These are just a few of over 70 artists from around the world who have recorded versions of Malaika hit song:

  • Henry Hamisi
  • Pete Seeger
  • Harry Belafonte
  • Angélique Kidjo
  • Safari Band
  • Boney M.
  • Helmut Lotti
  • Rocco Granata
  • The Brothers Four
  • Hep Stars

Apart from these and other international musicians, many folks out there have recorded Malaika in so many different flavors.

YouTube is the right place to start sampling the divers remakes of the song.

A Beatuful Version of Malaika By Pere Seeger in 1960s

The Lyrics of Malaika: The Love, Little Bird and Poverty Verses

Malaika is divided into three verses:

  • The first verse mimics the un-dying love towards Malaika.
  • The second verse refers to Malaika as kidege to mean a small bird.
  • The third and final verse emphasises the theme of poverty by stressing the matter of pesa (money)

Kiswahili Lyrics

Malaika, nakupenda malaika
Malaika, nakupenda malaika
Nami nifanyeje, kijana mwenzio
Nashindwa na mali sina, we,
Ningekuoa malaika
Nashindwa na mali sina, we,
Ningekuoa malaika

Kidege, kukuwaza kidege
Kidege, kukuwaza kidege
Nami nifanyeje, kijana mwenzio
Nashindwa na mali sina, we,
Ningekuoa kidege
Nashindwa na mali sina, we,
Ningekuoa kidege

Pesa, zasumbua roho yangu
Pesa zasumbua roho yangu
Nami nifanyeje, kijana mwenzio
Nashindwa na mali sina, we,
Ningekuoa malaika
Nashindwa na mali sina, we,
Ningekuoa malaika

English Translation

Angel, I love you angel
Angel, I love you angel
What can I a youth like you do?
I am stuck because I have no money
I would have married you angel
I am stuck because I have no money
I would have married you angel

Small bird, I think of you little bird
Small bird, I think of you little bird
What can I a youth like you do?
I am stuck because I have no money
I would have married you angel
I am stuck because I have no money
I would have married you angel

Money is disturbing my heart
Money is disturbing my heart
What can I a youth like you do?
I am stuck because I have no money
I would have married you angel
I am stuck because I have no money
I would have married you angel

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Alfred Amuno


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