Su­per­star who never lost com­mon touch

Ray Phiri, who has lost his bat­tle with lung can­cer, left an in­deli­ble mark on our mu­sic in­dus­try, writes Sam Mathe

The Star Early Edition - - OBITUARY -

RAY PHIRI will be remembered as a mag­netic stage per­former, a con­sum­mate artist, tire­less cul­tural ac­tivist and a charis­matic mu­si­cian who crafted songs that elo­quently spoke to the soul of a trou­bled coun­try.

His com­po­si­tions were cloaked in rich metaphors, but they res­onated with the or­di­nary folk. Gui­tarist, singer, dancer, pro­ducer, band­leader and com­poser – he ex­celled in th­ese mul­ti­ple roles and re­mained a su­per­star who never lost the com­mon touch.

In an il­lus­tri­ous 50-year ca­reer that was mainly de­fined by his ex­cep­tional lead­er­ship of Stimela – the Peo­ple’s Band – he goes down in the an­nals of South African pop­u­lar cul­ture mu­sic as one of the mu­sic in­dus­try’s revered states­men and cel­e­brated am­bas­sadors.

His step­fa­ther, JustNow Phiri, was a Malaw­ian im­mi­grant and a trou­ba­dour who used to en­ter­tain mu­sic lovers at stokvels and fam­ily par­ties.

Born Ray­mond Chikapa on March 23, 1947 in Nel­spruit, in the then east­ern Transvaal, his ear­li­est in­volve­ment in mu­si­cal en­ter­tain­ment was when he danced in his fa­ther’s pup­petry show.

An ad­mirer of Bel­gian-born gui­tarist Django Rein­hardt, Phiri took over his fa­ther’s guitar play­ing in 1962, af­ter the old man lost three fin­gers in an ac­ci­dent.

In the mid-1960s, he went to the Alexan­dra-based Flam­ing Souls show and was blown away by the ex­plo­sive strum­ming of the late Her­man Fox, at the time one of the best gui­tarists in the coun­try.

And when he first heard a Her­bie Mann al­bum fea­tur­ing Eric Gayle, he knew that his fate with the guitar was sealed. At the same time, he har­boured am­bi­tions of be­ing a singer.

In­spired by Si­mon “Mahlathini” Nk­abinde’s croon­ing style, in 1967 he led the Nel­spruit-based Jabavu Queens, the vo­cal fe­male quin­tet, as a crooner. The fol­low­ing year, they re­leased Sponono, an mbaqanga hit sin­gle, which re­mained on the charts years af­ter the group’s demise.

The Jabavu Queens folded in the early 1970s af­ter some of their mem­bers died in a car ac­ci­dent. Phiri and his child­hood friends – drum­mer Isaac “Mnca” Mt­shali and bassist Jabu Sibumbe – formed Iz­in­tombi Zomkheth­elo and Amaz­imuz­imu. The name was later changed to its English ver­sion, The Can­ni­bals, to avoid con­fu­sion with an mbaqanga hit of the same name by Mahlathini and the Ma­hotella Queens.

The Can­ni­bals be­came an in­stru­men­tal band that backed top vo­cal­ists of the soul era, notably Ja­cob “Mpha­ranyana” Radebe, the great­est soul singer of them all. Their line-up was as fol­lows: Phiri (lead guitar), Richard Shongwe (elec­tric pi­ano), Ephraim Hlophe (bass) and Mt­shali on drums. At the time, Sibumbe was with a ri­val band, The Movers. They also per­formed and recorded with the late Pa­tience Afrika.

In­de­pen­dently, The Can­ni­bals re­leased two al­bums, Get Funky and Highland Drifter. The lat­ter was writ­ten by Phiri and be­came a hit, but was banned be­cause of its anti-apartheid lyrics.

How­ever, it went on to dom­i­nate the air­waves in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly in the then Rhode­sia (now Zim­babwe), where it topped the charts on the pop­u­lar Ra­dio One and other sta­tions.

He re-recorded Highland Drifter a decade later in 1985 on the al­bum Shad­ows, Fear and Pain.

In­ter­est­ingly, this time the gov­ern­ment didn’t take no­tice of it, de­spite the fact that it was at the height of the state of emer­gency. A spec­tac­u­lar live per­for­mance on Oc­to­ber 6 and 7 in 1978 at the Colos­seum in Joburg was a defin­ing mo­ment in terms of what Phiri could do as a stage per­former.

Fol­low­ing Mpha­ranyana’s death in 1979, it was the end of the road for The Can­ni­bals.

In 1980, Stimela (the Steam Train) was formed af­ter Phiri and Mt­shali were re­united with Sibumbe. Lloyd Lelosa, key­boardist and for­mer mem­ber of The Wavelets, an­other band that backed Mpha­ranyana, joined them.

Over the years, mu­si­cians of high cal­i­bre such as Char­lie Ndlovu (key­boards), John Has­san (per­cus­sion), Nana “Coy­ote” Moti­joane (lead singer), Thapelo Khomo (key­boards), Ntokozo Zungu (guitar), Sandile Ngema (bass guitar), Veli Sha­bangu (per­cus­sion) and sax­o­phon­ists McCoy Mru­bata, Tea­spoon Ndelu and Mandla Ma­suku have been on board the steam train.

Stimela started as a ses­sion band back­ing es­tab­lished names such as Sipho “Hot­stix” Mabuse and Om Alec Khaoli of Umoja. Their first lead singer, Joy White, was re­placed by Phiri when the for­mer de­cided to pur­sue a solo ca­reer. Fe­male singers such as the Blue Rays – Beaulah Hashe, Mar­i­lyn Nokwe and the late Phumzile Ntuli – have also fea­tured on Stimela as vo­cal back­ers.

With Phiri at the helm as song­writer, com­poser, ar­ranger and lead singer, Stimela fused a va­ri­ety of styles from town­ship jive to Amer­i­can funk to pro­duce a unique reper­toire that has since earned them a spe­cial place in the pan­theon of South African mu­sic – a su­per band. Their first sin­gle, I Hate Telling A Lie, set them on a path to na­tional recog­ni­tion and even­tu­ally in­ter­na­tional star­dom.

Their so­cio-po­lit­i­cal and soul-search­ing lyrics be­came a ver­bal ve­hi­cle for their con­scious­ness-rais­ing mis­sion dur­ing the height of the anti-apartheid Strug­gle.

Their de­but self-ti­tled al­bum was re­leased in 1983 but re­ceived a luke­warm re­sponse. But their fortunes changed fol­low­ing the re­lease of Fire, Pas­sion, Ec­stasy (Gallo, 1984); Shad­ows, Fear and Pain (1985); and Look, Lis­ten and De­cide (1986), and Stimela be­gan to en­joy plat­inum suc­cess.

How­ever, along­side their chart-top­ping hits was a ban­ning of songs from the air­waves which the gov­ern­ment deemed un­de­sir­able. Don’t Whis­per in the Deep, a mon­ster hit and duet with Nana “Coy­ote” Moti­joane from their 1986 al­bum, was banned.

Its lyrics, “We’re all trib­u­taries in this great river of pain… / don’t whis­per in the deep…” were pro­nounced by the SABC cen­sors as “po­lit­i­cally in­flam­ma­tory”.

Iron­i­cally, its pro­hi­bi­tion only pro­voked cu­rios­ity from the pub­lic and gen­er­ated more sales – re­port­edly 157 000 copies in five months.

An­other peren­nial favourite, Where Did We Go Wrong? – recorded with singer Kathy Pan­ning­ton, also suf­fered cen­sor­ship be­cause he per­formed a song with a white woman, which could be con­strued to carry a mes­sage with po­lit­i­cal over­tones.

Phiri’s role as artist/ac­tivist also came into sharp fo­cus when Stimela and Ju­luka head­lined a ben­e­fit con­cert in Or­lando Sta­dium in 1985 dur­ing the state of emer­gency to raise funds for chil­dren – some as young as 13 – who were in de­ten­tion for “po­lit­i­cal of­fences”, ac­cord­ing to the author­i­ties. The show was dis­rupted when po­lice shot tear­gas at rev­ellers af­ter the group sang Whis­pers in the Deep.

In 1985, Phiri and Mt­shali were some of the South African mu­si­cians who worked with Paul Si­mon on the Grammy Award-win­ning Grace­land al­bum. Phiri was re­spon­si­ble for ar­rang­ing the mu­sic on the project and sur­vived a bar­rage of crit­i­cism from young po­lit­i­cal fire­brands – the com­rades – who felt that he was con­tra­ven­ing the cul­tural boy­cott.

Grace­land ex­posed the band to West­ern au­di­ences and of­fered Stimela their share of the in­ter­na­tional lime­light.

Their high­lights abroad in­cluded per­form­ing in New York’s Apollo The­ater and fea­tur­ing in the Dog Night Show, one of the Apollo’s long­est-run­ning mu­si­cals, with the likes of Aretha Franklin.

In 1987, the star sur­vived a hor­rific car ac­ci­dent, which claimed the lives of fel­low artists Jean “The An­gel” Madubane, Ash­ley “The Prophet” Subel and Peter “The Gen­eral” Kunene.

Phiri be­lieved that the in­ci­dent was staged by apartheid agents to si­lence him and ac­cused his band man­ager of be­ing an apartheid spy.

But he re­fused to be si­lenced with the re­lease of an­other protest al­bum, The Un­fin­ished Story (1987).

In 1991, he took a break from Stimela and re­leased a solo al­bum, Peo­ple Don’t Talk, So Let’s Talk, un­der the CCP/ EMI la­bel. In his ab­sence, Stimela re­leased Khu­l­u­lani (1994), with Coy­ote on lead vo­cals.

And while he re­united with Stimela in 1995 for the record­ing of the al­bum Don’t Ask Why, he was able to record two more solo al­bums, How? (EMI, 1999) and Chikapa’s 11 Years (2000) un­der Pri­me­dia Records.

Stimela en­tered the new mil­len­nium stronger than ever, run­ning pun­ish­ing sched­ules of con­certs here and abroad.

Over the years, the band’s is­sues and con­cerns have broad­ened to in­clude the HIV/ Aids pan­demic and mu­sic piracy.

Their last al­bum, A Life­time (2010), is a bench­mark project that fea­tures Lady­smith Black Mam­bazo, Soweto Spir­i­tual Choir, Faith Kekana, Stella Khu­malo, Felicia Mar­ion and Than­diswa Mazwai – among oth­ers.

Phiri, 70, died yes­ter­day morn­ing in a Mpumalanga hos­pi­tal from lung can­cer. He is sur­vived by eight chil­dren.

Il­lus­tri­ous mu­sic ca­reer spanned 50 years Elo­quently spoke to the soul of a trou­bled coun­try


RES­ONATED WITH OR­DI­NARY PEO­PLE: Jazz, fu­sion and mbaqanga gui­tarist Ray­mond Chikapa Enock Phiri was a found­ing mem­ber of The Can­ni­bals in the 1970s. When they dis­banded, Phiri founded Stimela.

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