Malaika is possibly the most famous of all Swahili love songs in the entire East Africa including Kenya and Tanzania both of which claim its origin. Malaika, which means “angel” in Swahili is also one of the most widely known of all Swahili songs in the world.
While its copyright is owned by Kenyan musician Fadhili Salim, its authorship is contented by the Tanzanians, who claim that a Tanzanian musician Adam Salim wrote it in 1945. As per the Tanzanian story, Fadhili William was one of Adam’s young protégés and learned the song while Adam played it in Nairobi nightclubs in the early 50s but beat Adam to Columbia the East African Music Company studios where he recorded the initial two verses of the song in 1959.
The song is written from the perspective of a poor young man who wishes to marry his beloved “Angel” but is defeated by the bride price (dowry).
The song gained popularity in the African continent and later internationally, when South African music legend Myriam Makeba performed it in the 60s, eventually inspiring cover versions by other international singers including Harry Belafonte, Hep Stars, Pete Seeger and Boney M.
Fadihi William legally contested Myriam Makeba’s unauthorised cover for copyright infringement and won the same.
Back home, a few Indian singers and composers too had their versions of the song. While there were no formal recordings by the legendary singers Lata Mangeshkar and Usha Uthup, they have performed covers of the song on different occasions acknowledging its origin. In contrast, three Bollywood composers– Bappi Lahiri, Nadeem Shravan and Anu Malik took the liberty of using the music of Malaika for their songs in three different decades with no formal acknowledgement to the origin.
In 1982, EMI released the Indian debut pop album of famous Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila (of ‘Dama Dam Mast Kalandar’ fame) ‘SUPERUNA’ with songs from the disco genre composed by Bappi Lahiri and lyrics by Shailey Shailendra. The album featured a song ‘Pukaro Tum Kahan Ho Pukaro ‘ which was an absolute lift of the original with the words “Pukaro tum kahan ho pukaro” replacing “Malaika, nakupenda Malaika”.
Almost a decade later in 1993, leading composers of the early 90s, Nadeem Sharavan used the same tune to create the melodious duet ‘Gawah Hain Chand Taare Gawah Hai’ for the film ‘Damini’. To the duo’s credit, the original tune was used for the introductory lines only and the remaining part of the song including the outro “Damini, Damini O Meri Damini” and major portions of the verses in between are largely their own. Sung by Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik, ‘Gawah Hain’ remains one of the most loved romantic duets of the 90s.
More than a decade later in 2006, Anu Malik composed ‘Tu Jahan bhi jaayegi’ for the movie ‘Pyare Mohan’ starring Vivek Oberoi and Fardeen Khan. Sung by Kunal Ganjawala, this is the only memorable song from the movie and is extremely popular among the singer’s fans. Unlike the previous composers, Anu Malik used the tune of “Malaika, nakupenda Malaika” which literally means “Ängel, I love you my Angel” only for the interspersed refrains “I love u my angel tujhe kabhi naa main bhulaaunga” almost like a tribute to the original while the major portion of the song maintained Anu’s creative originality.
Fadhili William passed away in 2001. Had he lived long enough to learn of the inspired Bollywood versions, he may have considered pursuing legal options against the composers as he did with Miriam Makeba.
(The writer is a doctor and public health specialist by profession but a passionate music enthusiast with special liking for Bollywood music from 80s and 90s)