|Photo: Nonhlanhla Kheswa, by Johan Persson|
Of the many reasons to see Peter Brook’s upcoming adaptation of Can Themba’s The Suit (see this illustrated storybook for a nice introduction), the inspired use of songs—all of them performed live on stage—is certainly one of the best. Schubert lieder and the Billie Holiday/Nina Simone vehicle “Strange Fruit” are among the selections, as is the gripping song “Malaika”—“Angel” in Swahili.
Written in the 1960s by the Kenyan songwriter Fadhili Williams (although some still contest its authorship), “Malaika” concerns a young man who is in love with a woman but can't marry her because he has no dowry. Williams recalls:
When I was in school I had a girlfriend, and to me she looked like an angel. Her name was Fanny, but I nicknamed her Malaika (“Angel”). I wanted to get married to her, but you had to pay a dowry to get married and I didn’t have that kind of money; my father passed away when I was two years old, so he could not help me. So he was married by somebody else who had the dowry, the parents. And the only thing I could do to 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.
In The Suit—which was originally conceived in the culturally vibrant apartheid-era township of Sophiatown—“Malaika” is sung, strikingly, by a fallen angel of sorts. Matilda has cheated on her husband, and her punishment, inflicted with the quietest vengeance, is to take her lover’s suit with her wherever she goes while continuing on with life as usual.
Matilda's "Malaika" (sung brilliantly by Nonhlanhla Kheswa, a former cast member of The Lion King), is thus an ironic one. But in all of its aching sweetness, it almost demands to be read as an equally necessary one. In 1950s Sophiatown, the creative class sang, recorded albums, and wrote stories to escape the looming spectre of apartheid—the city would be purged and razed to the ground in 1955—which was their own elephant in the room. Matilda sings a song about impossible love, but impossible love as redeemed in the sinews of song. Perhaps music is her only means of escape?
Give us your interpretation in the comments. And check out these four amazing performances of this beautiful, bittersweet song.
The original, sung by Fadhili Williams
Focused, intense, devastating: Angélique Kidjo's take
Miriam Makeba's breezy version—perhaps the most famous.
Makeba again, this time with Harry Belafonte (who comes to BAM Jan 21!)