In 1990, I hitchhiked from Capetown to Nairobi, stopping for several months in Lubumbashi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), to study with two giants of African acoustic guitar, Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo. In Nairobi, I met Herbert Misango, a story I’ve told in another video, who introduced me to John Nzenze, “John Guitar,” one of the pioneers of Kenyan electric guitar. John took me around to hear a couple of other bands and gave me Fadhili William’s phone number in the United States, explaining that William had moved there some years earlier, pursuing royalties for his world-famous song, “Malaika,” and was currently working in a gas station in New Jersey.
By the times I got back to the US and called the number, William was no longer there and they could not tell me how to reach him, but in 1997 he was booked in a short-lived club in Roxbury with the band Virunga, and I leapt at the chance to interview him.
Like most people outside Kenya, I did not know anything about him except this song, which was popularized throughout Africa and the US by Miriam Makeba. I’d heard his original version on an album issued by John Storm Roberts, and also played it with my friend Dominic Kakolobango — the guitar part I play is an expansion of the accompaniment I played for Dominic’s version, which we worked out while I was living with him in Lubumbashi and have expanded in various directions over the last thirty years.
When I finally had the chance to talk with him, William told me how he came to write this song:
I had schooling in Nairobi, I used to go back to my place of birth, which was Mombassa. And when I went there I used to go around and see people playing music… I used to look at what they are playing, and when I came back from the vacation I asked my mother to buy me a guitar, and she bought me a box guitar and I started learning by myself, without a teacher, just by going to a place where they are playing and sitting quietly and look how he is running his fingers…
I went into a studio and they said “OK, play us what you know.” I played a few songs from my country, because I’m a Taita by tribe. Back there, people love music. So I started recording those traditional songs and ones I composed by myself. After they were released, they were hits, but I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I was just doing it for people to know who is Fadhili. I didn’t know whether there was money involved in this thing….
When I left school in 1959, that’s the time I composed “Malaika.” When I was in school I had a girlfriend, to me she looked like an angel. Her name was Fanny, but I nicknamed her Malaika. I wanted to get married to her, but you had to pay dowry to get married and I didn’t have that kind of money. So she was married by somebody else who had the dowry, the parents. Now, the only thing I could make her remember me is by playing that song. Even though there was her husband at home, listening to the radio, she could hear that song, because she knows her nickname, and the husband won’t know who is this Malaika, to portray that message to her that I still love her.
That song says, “Malaika, I love you my angel, but the only thing I’m lacking is money, because if I had money I could have got married to you. I keep on thinking about you every now and then, but nothing I can do since now you are married.” So I said “The only thing which is bothering my heart is money, otherwise you could have been mine….”
Now, during our independence, that was ’63, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte were invited to come and celebrate. When they came, they asked their public relations, and they sang that song Malaika, I gave them the lyrics and we shared the stage. People thought it was funny for the foreigners to sing Swahili….
Numerous other artists have recorded this song over the years, and, despite William’s lovely story, at least two other Kenyan songwriters have been credited with composing it. I’m not here to adjudicate those claims; whoever composed it, it’s a beautiful song and one of my favorite pieces for improvising extended variants of the African guitar styles that inspired that journey.