Much like the war between West Bengal and Odisha claiming ownership of Rosogulla/Rasgulla, the war for ownership of the song ‘Malaika’ is legendary in Africa.
In the storied history, the war is primarily between Kenya and Tanzania.
One version of the story states that a Tanzanian musician named Adam Salim wrote it in 1945. According to this story, Adam Salim wanted to marry his beautiful girlfriend Halima. But Halima’s parents disapproved of their relationship, and she was forced by her parents to marry another rich man. It is said that Adam wrote the song in dejection.
Another version of the ownership story states that a Kenyan musician named Fadhili William wrote it in the 60s. According to this story, Fadhili was in love with a girl named Fanny. He was unable to raise the dowry required in order to marry Fanny. She was subsequently married off to a rich man. And Fadhili wrote the song in his girlfriend’s memory.
A third story goes that Fadhili William was one of his young proteges of Adam, who must have listened to the song since Adam played it in Nairobi nightclubs in the early 50s. This story adds that William beat Adam to Columbia East African Music Company studios where he recorded the initial two verses of the song in 1959. Subsequently, in 1960, Fadhili William again recorded Malaika in 1960 with his famous Jambo Boys and re-did it a few times later in the latter years.
Intriguingly, the song’s authorship is contested by about twenty more individuals and companies. To date, no individual is authoritatively credited for ‘composing’ ‘Malaika’ though copyright and royalties are attributed to Fadhili William.
Here is Fadhili’s 60s version:
The credit for making the song an international sensation, though, goes to South African musician, Miriam Makeba. She first performed the song in 1963, in Kenya. She also took the liberty to record the song in the US, which did not go well with Fadhili William. He contested Makeba in the court and triumphed.
Here is Miriam Makeba’s famous version:
After Miriam’s version went global, many international versions followed.
Here is a duet, featuring Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba:
And a Boney-M version!
Our own Lata Mangeshkar sang it during her live show in Nairobi!
The other famous Indian cover version is by Usha Uthup, though it is not available online.
As for the freemakes, that is, cover versions without permission, there are 2 notable Indian composers.
The first unauthorized cover version was by none other than Bappi Lahiri, in 1982, for the album Superuna. Superuna was an album consisting of songs sung by Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila, who is more famously associated with the song ‘Dama Dam Mast Kalandar’. Superuna was her first big, independent pop album in India.
Bappi Lahiri retained the original tune largely as-is, but with Hindi lyrics written by Shailey Shailendra, who turned the song into, ‘Pukaro’.
The second unauthorized version comes from Nadeem-Shravan, in 1993. The duo used the original tune to create ‘Gawah Hain Chand Taare Gawah Hai’ for the film Damini! Despite the fact that they did not credit the original in any way, I must add that their version is a very competent, filmy variant that extended the tune significantly.
Fadhili William passed away in 2001, and I wonder if he knew of the 2 unauthorized Indian versions of the song and if he ever considered pursuing legal options against Bappi Lahiri and Nadeem Shravan, as he did with Miriam Makeba!