As the world mourns Miriam Makeba, she will be remembered as the artiste who took African music to the world and spiced it up with a bit of jazz without destroying the nuance and character that made it unmistakably hers.
Her relevance in Kenya is much more profound, however, and one of her major successes was with the song Malaika, which became an international hit, but whose true composer remains a mystery and major cause of controversy.
It was long thought that she would one day shed the light as to the real origin of the song, but her death last Tuesday in Italy, without ever speaking openly about it, dashed any hopes there might have been of ever resolving the riddle.
Yet the song, whose rightful composer remains unknown, and which is claimed by dozens of artistes, has captured hearts for five decades and generated millions of dollars in royalties.
Though widely believed to have been composed by the late Fadhili Williams, some say it was, in fact, composed by the late Grand Charo, a part-time Tanzanian musician, who was also a regular employee of Pan Am airline in Nairobi in the 50s.
However, this week, veteran local musician David Amunga added a new twist to the controversy, saying none of the people believed to have composed the song only performed it, and that they cannot, therefore, claim ownership of the intellectual rights.
Said he: “The tune was brought to Kenya by returning members of the entertainment regiment of the Kings African Rifles that was recruited to entertain African soldiers serving in Burma during the Second World War”.
According to Amunga, it was among the many the regiment learnt during their stay abroad and had become very popular among their soldiers.
He added that among those in the unit was the late Fundi Konde, and that upon return to Kenya, they were employed as musicians in hotels in Nairobi, where the tune became an instant favorite with the white clientele.
The song had been around for quite a while when Peter Colmore (now deceased) noticed its enduring and organised to have it recorded, with Charo singing in this first recording. The quartet that recorded it included the late Fadhili William, who played the mandolin on the debut recording.
Colmore later corroborated this claim, as did Fundi Konde. Many other people who were involved in the music industry refused to be drawn into the controversy.
This first recording was later followed by a version by another musician, Henry Hamisi, then by Fadhili William in around 1962, with Makeba’s being the fourth version.
Amunga insists that the song was not composed by any of these musicians, nor was it an African tune. He further points out that its Bolero-Bossa Nova style points to a Spanish or Cuban origin.
Remarkably, Makeba never claimed to have composed the song, although she never publicly said who composed it either. She merely introduced it as a song from Tanzania, which upset those who knew about its Kenyan connection.
Says Amunga: “For sure it was first recorded in Kenya and not Tanzania, and it is equally true that it was not originally done by a Kenyan.”
He speaks with authority, given that he was the contact person for Makeba when she visited Kenya in 1962 for a performance organised by the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) then the ruling party, to fête the late President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who had just been released from detention and was set to become the country’s Prime Minister.
Amunga says that the majority of the Kanu elite would have preferred to have Zimbabwean musician Dorothy Masuka perform at the function, but Tom Mboya used his influence to have Makeba invited instead.
His argument was that every woman in Africa was imitating Makeba, and that it was only fair that she be invited because of the inspiration she had provided throughout the continent.
But there were concerns that she could not speak Kiswahili, and Mboya wanted her do a song in Kiswahili in honour of Kenyatta. Consequently, Amunga was co-opted to assist her with the lyrics.
“I was among the only recording artistes known to the organisers who could speak English and Kiswahili, which is why I was hired,” he says.
Meeting with Makeba
He recalls his meeting with Makeba at the New Stanley Hotel (now The Stanley) where they discussed the content and agreed on the wording.
Basically, she wanted to console Mzee Kenyatta for his tribulations and had a draft of the lyrics in English, which Amunga was to help translate into Kiswahili.
“I came up with the words “Pole, pole Mzee,” which she quickly accepted because they were easy to pronounce and also satisfied the organisers’ desire to have a song in Kiswahili,” explained Amunga.
There have been claims that the tune was borrowed from an existing Kenya tune composed by a female singer who lived in Pumwani but Amunga refutes the claim.
“It has a kwela beat, which is South African, but does have a faint taarab influence that made it appealing” he said.
But even as she did the song, the late Mboya, who had a strong passion for music, is said to have suggested that she also sing Malaika, which was then quite popular in elite circles.
A story by Colmore goes that Mboya’s request came as the musicians prepared to go on stage, and although Makeba had heard the song at her hotel and liked it, she had had no time to learn the words.
Said Colmore: “TJ (as Tom Mboya was popularly known) scribbled them on a piece of paper and in the hurry, mixed up the lyrics with another song by Fadhili William titled Pesa Za Sumbua Roho Yangu, adding the title line as a verse in Malaika, and it stuck.”
Fortunately it fitted in well with the concept and the issue was never raised, making it one of the most valuable mistakes in music history. After completing the Kanu engagement, Makeba left and did her version of the song as she had learnt it, and it became one of her biggest hits.
Her career had already gathered momentum in America, where she had settled in well as a jazz singer and a pioneer of then emerging face of African contemporary music.
That same year, 1962, she went to the White House for a birthday bash in honour of then US President John F Kennedy, where she shared the stage with the legendary singer/ actress Marilyn Monroe and Harry Belafonte.
But before then, Makeba had built a reputation as a top-flight artiste, whose blend of jazz and traditional style had won acclaim in the mainstream popular music. By so doing, she not only carved herself a niche on the international music scene, but more importantly, also crafted the concept of world music decades before it became the norm.
Her crowning moment came in 1965, when she was voted Best Jazz Artiste of the Year, an honour she shared with her mentor, Belafonte, for the album, An Evening with Miriam..
Commercially, her song Pata Pata became a big crossover hit and produced a hit version by the Osibisa group.
Makeba’s music career started in the ‘50s in Cape Town when she joined the group, The Manhattans, which toured Southern Africa and at one time played in the Congo. She later joined another group, the Skylarks, which played a mix of jazz and traditional South African music.
In 1959, an American producer who went to South Africa to film a documentary titled Come Back Africa, which was to be taken to the Venice Film Festival, hired Makeba as presenter.
After the festival, she decided not to return home and the apartheid regime used it as an excuse to cancel her passport, making her the first South African artiste to go into exile. She spent time in London, where she met Belafonte, and he persuaded her to go to the US.
Makeba became an instant attention-grabber, not just for her music, but also her political activism against apartheid in her homeland.
Impact on self-image
As she wooed American listeners with her rich full-bellied voice, her impact on African American self-image was also becoming clear.
At a time when African-Americans were keen to hot-comb their hair, Makeba wore hers short, and soon other women were cutting their hair to fit in with the new style. They created a look that changed not only the outward appearance, but also the way African-American women viewed themselves.
This influence was evident on the music scene, where jazz stars such as Nina Simone also started sporting the new look.
As her music grew in stature, so did her profile as a political activist, a factor that was compounded with her divorce from fellow South Africa jazz musician, Hugh Masekela. Thereafter, she wed ‘70s black power activist Stokley Carmichael, whose movement was causing unease in the US, with his revolutionary message of black supremacy.
The couple moved to Guinea, but the move seemed to have put pressure on their marriage, leading to a break up in 1973.
As the world mourns Makeba, there are lessons to be learnt from her career. A vital one is how artistes can use their mass appeal and high profile to influence positive socio-politico change at all levels.
By coincidence, her death came at a time when more governments are realising the need to use artistes for such change, which can promote understanding between people from all walks of life.
The US, for instance, has an international visitors’ programme, which aims to promote tolerance of other people through the arts.
Her last bow during a concert against the dreaded Mafia is truly indicative of her commitment to justice and harmony, and her role as a voice of the those facing persecution.
For music, the story of Malaika is a lesson in copyright protection and the need for artistes to appreciate the value of their music, which can resonate long after they are gone.
During a visit to the offices of Danish National Radio in 1998, I saw a file on Malaika that displayed 60 versions of the song, crediting different artistes for the composition.
Notably, there was no reference to Charo, although he was the first one to have a recorded version.
The controversy and confusion over its rights has been a major issue with regard to the distribution of royalties running into millions of dollars accrued from the cover versions and public performances of the song over the past 40 or so years.
So far they have been shared out among the various artistes who have registered the song. Sometime in the ‘80s, various royalty collecting bodies and Fadhili Williams had to spend time in the US in the 80s to stake his claim to the song; they are said to have got a handsome package.
But Amunga’s claim completely alters the face of Malaika and as the saying goes, the truth is out there.