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

Updated on June 1, 2017

Malaika song is probably the most renowned love ballad to have come out of East Africa, if not the whole of Africa. It became a hit song not only in Africa but across the globe and has been redone by over seventy African and international artists like Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte and Boney M.

Malaika is a sentimental song which highlights the theme of love viz-a-viz poverty in contemporary Africa. It narrates a sad story of a young man whose love for a young woman referred to as Malaika (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 a last gasp attempt to win Malaika over, even when he and society know that matrimony between them would never happen.

While the sentimental theme of the song is captivating enough, the story behind its creation and studio recording is shrouded in age-long controversy.

The controversy is about who actually composed it.

Despite the formal accreditation to Fadhili William (RIP) as the composer, different artists and persons continue to contest it, arguing that William had no rights to the original song.

The question therefore is, who actually composed it?

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

To explain this better, we trace personal histories of the two men who are closely associated with its authorship:

  • Fadhili William

and

  • Adam Salim

Fadhili William and his Malaika

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

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

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

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

While their love blossomed to maturity, 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 by Fanny's family.

Consequently, Fanny was married off to a richer man who was capable of paying dowry to her parents.

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.

Adam Salim and his Malaika

Adam Salim (RIP) was born in 1916 in Tanzania and claimed he was the original composer of Malaika. 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 dowry for her, she was allegedly wedded off to a rich Indian man.

He could do nothing about his dilemma and like Fadhili William, 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 of 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 from the two countries believes 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 mus 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 goes that William actually cashed Salim Shs 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 Ballad?

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 it's copyright and royalties are attributed to Fadhili William.

Original ownership of Malaika is actually 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 first even before Fadhili William. In this first recording, Fadhili William reportedly played the mandolin musical instrument.

The dispute over who actually 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.

A Creative Remake of Malaika from Tanzania

The dispute reached new heights when Fadhili William visited and performed Malaika in Tanzania.

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

The status quo seems to serve Kenyans well and they would prefer not to talk about the roots of Malaika any further.

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 happened right about 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 popularized it globbaly
Miriam Makeba (RIP) rendition of Malaika popularized it globbaly | Source

History reports that apart from performing other songs, Miriam Makeba was invited to the stage by 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.

To help her master the song quickly, Tom Mboya scribbled the lyrics of Malaika to make the ballad complete. He inadvertently added a third verse – the pesa verse which had not yet featured in the song.

The verse was actually smuggled from another of Fadhili William's songs.

Fadhili William added this third verse to his latter recordings of the song.

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

This did not go down well with Fadhili William back in Kenya.

With the help of American Peter Colmore and his own producer Charles Worrod, William 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

One last popular hearsay regarding the birth of Malaika claims it was composed far away in Burma and Cuba and was only smuggled to the East African coast in 1940s.

Popular in the story was that Malaika was a popular ballad amongst the men in uniform who served in Burma during the Second World War.

One popular artist associated with this version of the story was Fundi Konde (RIP) who performed it in bars around Nairobi after the end of the war. He did not claim to have written the ballad.

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 origin.

Perhaps, the song was never meant to originate from any one place.

Other Artists Who Recorded Versions of Malaika

These are just a few of over 70 artists from around the world who reproduced Malaika:

  • Henry Hamisi
  • Pete Seeger
  • Harry Belafonte
  • Angélique Kidjo
  • Safari Band
  • Boney M. version
  • 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 individual remakes of the song.

A Beatuful Version of Malaika By Pere Seeger in 1960s

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

The song 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

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