Last Updated: August 3, 2020

Malaika song is perhaps the most awesome love ballad to have come out of East Africa, if not the whole of Africa. It has remained so popular over the years and sung by many artists around the world. They include Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo, Pete Seeger, 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 girl is doomed because he is so poor to pay the asking bride-price. The song is probably the last gasp attempt to win her over.

While the sentimentality of the song is captivating, the story behind its creation is shrouded in age-long controversy and uncertainty, over who actually composed it!

Fadhili William Versus Adam Salim

Though royalties and copyright to the song are attributed to Fadhili William, many others claim it was Adam Salim who composed the song. A list of other artists and persons in and out of Africa, too, claim to have composed the song. The dispute is particularly big in East Africa, where it pits Kenya against Tanzania, two musical rivals for decades. Fadhili William happens to have come from Kenya, while Adam Salim was Tanzanian born! Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

We trace the history of these two men and their personal relationships to Malaika song:

Fadhili William & His Malaika Song

Fadhili William was born Fadhili William Mdawida on November 11th, 1938 in Kenya. Many Kenyans believe he was the original composer of the Malaika song, and he, of course, had a story to tell to prove his authorship.

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

William claimed he was unable to pay for her dowry when the time came for marriage. Because he was poor, and his father had died when he was only two years old, Fadhili was unable to raise the required money for brideprice. Fanny was subsequently married off to a rich man.

Fadhili William composed the Malaika song in memory of her, and Fanny actually listened to it on the radio. Her husband too loved and listened to it though unaware of its meaning.

Fadhili William with the original Malaika song

Adam Salim & His Malaika Song

Adam Salim was born in 1916 in Tanzania and claimed he was the original composer of the 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 Ramadhan Maruwa and just like William, he was unable to afford the asking price of her dowry. She was subsequently married off to a rich Indian man, who was approved by her parents.

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

Adam Salim also told of another twist to the story, about how Fadhili William actually stole the song from him.

He claimed he was a mechanic and a musician who performed in Nairobi nightclubs in the 1940s and 1950s. It is during these years that he composed and sang Malaika.

It is said that Fadhili William was one of his young proteges, who must have listened and copied the song. The young Fadhili beat Salim to Columbia East African Music Company studios in 1960, where he officially recorded the initial two verses of the song in the company of the Jambo Boys band. And just like that, he claimed its royalties.

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 traveled back to his home-town of Moshi in Tanzania where he married and settled down with another woman.

The Miriam Makeba Controversy

Miriam Makeba with version of Malaika

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 the liberty to record the song under her label when she traveled back to the 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 whose roots stretch as far back as the 1950s and 60s.

Interestingly though, no one in Cuba and Burma ever claimed authorship of the song.

So, Who Actually 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.

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.

Even today in the 21st century, just as it was in the 20th century the mystery of Malaika authorship continues to linger, much as it is likely that Adam Salim composed the song.

The original lyrics of Malaika song by Fadhili Williams.

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