Who Actually Composed the Famous Malaika Swahili Song?

Though its royalties and copyright are attributed to Fadhili William (RIP), different artists and persons claim they composed Malaika song.3 min


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Malaika Swahili song is perhaps the most renowned love ballad to have come out of East Africa, if not the whole continent. Over seventy African and international artists have redone it. 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 tells a sad story of a young man whose love for his dream angel is doomed because he is poor. He cannot afford the asking bride-price. The song is probably the last gasp attempt to win her over.

While the sentimentality of the song is truly captivating, the story behind its creation is shrouded in age-long controversy. It centers around the identity of its composer. Who wrote the original Malaika Swahili song?

Fadhili William Versus Adam Salim

Though royalties and copyright are attributed to Fadhili William (RIP), different artists and persons claim they composed the song.

The dispute is particularly big in East Africa simply because it pits Kenya against Tanzania, two musical rivals for decades.

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

  • Fadhili William
  • Adam Salim

Fadhili William

Fadhili William was born Fadhili William Mdawida On November 11th, 1938 in Kenya. Many Kenyans believe he was the original composer of the 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. He referred to her as his Malaika.

William claimed he was unable to pay for her dowry because he was poor, and his father died when he was only two years old. Fanny 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.

Adam Salim

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

Adam Salim too had a story to tell in regards to its composition.

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

And like Fadhili William, he too decided to compose a song for her.

Salim was a mechanic and a musician who performed in Nairobi nightclubs in the 1940s and 1950s. He claims to have composed and sang Malaika song in early 1950s.

It is said that Fadhili William was one of his young proteges, who must have listened and copied Malaika song. The young Fadhili beat Salim to Columbia East African Music Company studios in 1959, where he recorded the initial two verses of the song.

The story is told about how William cashed Salim 60 Kenyan shillings, as a token of appreciation.

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

So, Who Actually Composed Malaika Swahili Song?

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

Other claims and counterclaims have been told dating back to the 1940s as to who exactly composed Malaika. About twenty individuals and companies contest its authorship. Grant Charo, Williams’s brother-in-law, and Lucas Tututu are just some of them. Charo is credited for recording the song even before Fadhili William did. The latter reportedly played mandolin in the recording.

The Miriam Makeba Controversy

The world famous South African musician, Miriam Makeba (1932 – 2008), is also associated with Malaika controversy.

Her encounter with the song started in 1963 when she was invited by the then flamboyant Kenyan politician – Tom Mboya, to perform during Kenya’s Jamuhuri Day celebrations, in the company of Harry Belafonte.

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 when he went back to USA!

This did not go down well with Fadhili William who took her to court. He triumphed, with the help of American Peter Colmore and his producer, Charles Worrod.

In her subsequent recordings of the song, including the live performance of Homeland CD, Miriam Makeba irked Kenyans when she alluded to the song being Tanzanian.

Malaika From Burma and Cuba

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

The song was apparently popular amongst the men in uniform serving under the British Kings African Rifles.

Fundi Konde (RIP) who had been recruited to entertain the soldiers also performed it in bars around Nairobi. He did not claim to have written it.

The Cuban twist to the story also claims Malaika is 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, no one in Cuba and Burma has ever claimed authorship of the song.


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