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
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.