Malaika: World’s Famous Swahili Ballad Has its Roots in Taita

Virtually everyone with an ear has heard this classic ballad. “Malaika, nakupenda Malaika” are words too sensational and familiar. In fact, they are written in our hearts and minds in unfading font. Although the international music community credits the song to South Africa’s Miriam Makeba, this piece was first recorded in 1960 by Fadhili Williams, a silver-tongue balladeer from Taita Hills in Coastal Kenya.

Fadhili Williams was at his zenith in a time when world music underwent tremendous changes. The British Invasion was in effect and The Beatles had injected Rock n Roll into the American culture. The advent of Motown music had taken Europe by storm and I bet British women wallowed in orgasms after glimpsing Stevie Wonder with his harmonica. Indeed, the 1960s are a critical phase in contemporary music.

It was no different in East Africa either. Fadhili Williams released Malaika and the world went bonkers. Miriam Makeba, Boney M, Angelique Kidjo, and Harry Belafonte are among huge artistes who gave their eyeteeth to be associated with this popular song. Lata Mangeshkar’s rendition was particularly fascinating to me and none comes close. Not even Shreya Ghoshal’s husky soprano can ace the ballad as much as Lata, India’s beloved nightingale.

Fadhili Williams and The Jambo Boys were like Lionel Richie and The Commodores, and the only glaring difference is the latter’s outlandish outfits. Mr. Charles Worrod was Kenya’s very own Berry Gordy, and he facilitated the invention of African Twist, a sound that Fadhili Williams gladly pioneered. Just for the record, Fadhili and Worrod won a subsequent lawsuit against a South African songstress who demonstrably rode on the Malaika fame.

Fadhili had his fare share of woes but he triumphantly managed to secure the rights to this classic song, although it is unclear to what extent he benefited. Grant Charo, an alleged songwriter, claimed to have jotted Malaika’s lyrics and awarded them to Fadhili who already had a budding music career with the Jambo Boys. Charles Worrod, the record’s producer, affirmed Charo’s remarks but subsequent publications reveal that Worrod and Williams were not seeing eye to eye. Now how about we stick to what we know?

I am not being cocky saying I am ecstatic that the world’s favorite Swahili ballad was first recorded by our tribesman. Well, I commiserate with those who expected anything less. We have a record a mile long of producing phenomenal people and some have inadvertently or intentionally been omitted in the books of history. Look, the legendary Habel Kifoto who popularized our tribe with “Charonyi ni Wasi”, the prodigious Nico Zenge Kala who singlehandedly shook JUWATA. The list is as long as you care to imagine.

Verily, Fadhili Williams and his “Malaika” remind me of Leyla and Qaysa. Two perfect lovers in an unjust world. This is the story of our very own lives, and thus the song is as relevant today as it were in 1963 when Miriam Makeba sedated the world with her rendition. So, next time a random opinionist claims that Malaika is Makeba’s, or Kidjo’s, or Belafonte’s, you know what to tell them.

That the famous Swahili ballad has its roots in Taita!


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