by Douglas Paterson
Above: Fadhili William performing live on radio in East African Rails & Harbours' "Showboat" Program, 1960.
The following article appeared in the June-July, 2001 issue of The Beat Magazine.
One of Kenya's pop music legends, Fadhili William, passed away on February 11th (2001) in Nairobi at the (reported) age of 62. His circa 1963 recording, Malaika (Angel), remains the definitive version of this now world-famous song. Although Fadhili's claim of authorship of the song is disputed among several Kenyans and Tanzanians, there is no argument that it is one of the best known songs throughout Africa. Along with Guantanamera, Malaika is in the warm-up repertoire of nearly every hotel band on the continent. Miriam Makeba had a lot to do with spreading Malaika beyond the bounds of East Africa. Her performances of the song brought it to the attention of such famous names as Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, pop groups such as Boney M, and scores of African artists including Angelique Kidjo and the Mahotella Queens. It's even covered by Djeli Moussa Diawara and Bob Brozman on their recent Ocean Blues CD.
William, however, was far more than a one hit wonder. He was a journeyman
musician whose career spanned nearly a half-century, with some 200 compositions
to his credit. He's been described as a guitarist's guitarist but, also,
as one of the Kenyan musicians who brought about the downfall of the
once vibrant acoustic scene. On this, Kenyan guitarist Aziz Salim lamented,
"We had a traditional acoustic Kenyan music, and it lasted until people
like Fadhili William came along with all this jazzy Jambo Boys stuff.
That's when the whole thing started diverting (from Stapleton and May's
African All-Stars, page 236)." Indeed, it did.
Fadhili was among the first in East Africa to use an electric guitar. Clearly, he had a good ear for music coming from other parts of the world. His songs and arrangements mix diverse elements from robust jazz chords to American country and western sounds, from walking baselines to Latin rumbas and South African kwela. Not a lot of his music is available outside of Kenya but a few examples can be found on the (now rare) Before Benga compilations from Original Music. One can hear Latin rhythms in songs such as Mwanamali wa Maridadi (with Ester John and Fundi Konde), When You Visit Taita, and even Malaika. Other songs like his big hit Taxi Driver, combine a completely different set of musical elements: a fast version of the South African "wimoweh" rhythm, called "twist" in Kenya; walking bass (played on guitar); and a melody and guitar line with a country feel, something like the song Red River Valley in two part harmony.
Born in Taita-Taveta, up-country from Kenya's coast, Fadhili took up music in primary school joining the choir. His musical talent was readily apparent to his teacher who would sometimes turn the group over to him. Fadhili says he was about 15 when his mother bought him his first guitar, a Gallotone, costing around $12 (a pretty good sum in those days). He learned by watching other musicians play but found it difficult to get his own teacher. Guitarists, he said, were jealous and didn't want to share their skills. But he must have been a quick study because he was soon recruited into Chem Chem Kids, his first group, by saxophonist Alexander Ayub. They played for weddings and parties and even made a recording for the AMC label (African Mercantile Company). They also did an extensive tour of Uganda.
Returning to Kenya, Fadhili made his first recording with East African Records in 1955. Again, Fadhili's musical prowess must have made a good impression, this time with recording and sales manager Eric Blackart. Fadhili gradually worked his way into a position as Blackart's assistant. Every Tuesday, they held auditions for new artists and materials. Blackart came to rely upon Fadhili's knowledge and intuition of what might do well in the East African market. With Blackart's departure in 1956, his successor placed even more reliance upon Fadhili.
In addition to his role as a talent scout, Fadhili also served as a session musician and arranger playing second guitar on many recordings. In Febraury, 1959, the Jambo Boys band was created and supported by East African Records. The group started out as a quartet with Fadhili as guitarist and leader along with string bass, trumpet, and drums. The following year, they added two more members and started performing on radio for Kenya Broadcasting Service. It was shortly after this that the studio was sold and the Jambo Boys were renamed Equator Sounds Band.
In this period, Fadhili worked with most of the great musicians in and around Nairobi. The various members of Equator Sounds Band (and successors) constitute an honor roll in themselves with such names as Sylvester Odhiambo, Gabriel Omolo, Daudi Kabaka, Nashil Pichen and Peter Tsotsi. In Fadhili's own projects, the backing band is often credited as the Black Shadows, unspecified musicians from perhaps Equator Sounds or his earlier collaborations. As Kenya's benga music style gradually picked up steam in the late 60s and came to dominate in the 70s, the lighter "easy-listening" music of Fadhili and cohorts faded from the scene. Fadhili did some work with the popular Hodi Boys including a soul/funk version of Malaika with horns in the Stax/Volt tradition but he never really found a new formula to keep his name current in the changing scene.
All those years in talent evaluation, producing, and engineering did not go to waste, however. After the Equator Sounds Studio closed up shop, Fadhili continued in a similar capacity in the 1970s, working for the Nairobi offices of Phonogram (PolyGram). In addition to various benga artists, Fadhili has mentioned studio and engineering work with Tanzanian greats Morogoro Jazz and Super Volcano; Simba Wanyika; NUTA Jazz; Samba Mapangala; Congolese bandleader, Verckys; and even Louis Armstrong and members of the Beatles!
Following a five-year stint at Phonogram, Fadhili was invited to the United States as part of a government delegation. He stayed about a year before returning to East Africa. By the mid-eighties, he was performing in international-class hotels in Kenya and Tanzania. But, apparently frustrated by his inability to make any great headway in either the local or international scenes from East Africa, Fadhili returned to the US in 1987 to pursue his musical ambitions. Little is on record for this period in Fadhili William's life. He settled in the New York / New Jersey area where he took a second wife, also from Kenya. Their daughter, Malaika, now seven years old, lives in Kenya. While in the United States, Fadhili was preparing some studio recordings but even in this, he was thwarted. All his work was lost in a studio fire and nothing was ever released.
One of the highlights of his stay in the US must have been Fadhili's participation in the 1997 tour of Kenyan-based musicians, Samba Mapangala performing with John Ngereza and Les Wanyika. Fadhili was invited to perform on their Boston date, June 27th. WMBR Radio's African music host, Ethan Bloomberg, described it as a very successful appearance saying Fadhili "delighted the crowd with his renditions of Taxi Driver, Malaika, and other familiar hits." Bloomberg was particularly struck by "his warmth, showmanship, and stage presence." Finally, he also notes that Fadhili "wore solid color suits (and) smoked Dunhills - heavily!"
Later that same year, Fadhili returned to Kenya with his daughter. He once again started performing in hotels and "Golden Oldies Nite" concerts in Nairobi to the backing of such groups as Them Mushrooms and the Pressman Band. Towards the end of 2000, Fadhili's health began to deteriorate requiring three weeks in intensive hospital care for pneumonia in November. Prior to that, he had been performing on Saturday nights at Nairobi's Panafric Hotel. By mid-January this year, Fadhili's condition worsened again and he was once more admitted for hospital care. He died three weeks later, newspaper accounts citing pneumonia as the cause of death. Fadhili William Mdawida leaves behind wives in Nairobi and New Jersey, 8 children and 9 grandchildren. He was buried according to Islamic rites in Kariokor Muslim Cemetery, Nairobi. It was a bitter sweet career for the man who enjoyed immense popularity in Kenya but spent much of his life fighting for recognition and royalties (for Malaika) from the international community. He leaves a lasting imprint in Kenya's musical past and he leaves the world, Malaika.
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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com.
Last updated September 7, 2011.
Copyright ©2001-2011 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.