Pay­ing trib­ute to mu­sic le­gend Ray Phiri

Vet­eran DRUM jour­nal­ist Kaizer Ng­wenya re­mem­bers his friend, leg­endary mu­si­cian Ray Phiri

DRUM - - Contents -

WHEN mu­sic hits you, you feel no pain – or so Bob Mar­ley tells us. But when you hear that an iconic mu­si­cian has passed on, it hits you very hard in­deed.

I’m driv­ing to work and lis­ten­ing to Stimela’s Fire, Pas­sion and Ec­stasy. The guitar licks and Ray Chikapa Phiri’s lyri­cism on the in­stru­ment gives me goose­bumps.

Ray is one un­der­rated gui­tarist, I think to my­self, tap­ping the steer­ing wheel to the rhythm of the beat. Then the mu­sic stops. The ra­dio jock says the sta­tion is pay­ing trib­ute to Ray Phiri, who has died of lung can­cer in a hospi­tal in Mbombela, Mpumalanga. Tears well in my eyes. I had seen Ray Phiri cry sev­eral times as he opened his heart and shared his life story with me. He told me how he had ne­glected his fam­ily – his wife, chil­dren, mother and sib­lings – in his quest to break into mu­sic.

Mem­o­ries flood back. I knew the man for more than four decades and with age came taste and with good taste came bet­ter mu­sic, he would tell me.

As we get older, it’s said our abil­ity to taste is di­min­ished and as our taste buds be­come de­sen­si­tised we crave more flavour­ful food. The food we once en­joyed tastes bland and flavour­less. And we crave some­thing dif­fer­ent: in­ge­nu­ity, in­no­va­tion, flavours and lay­ers.

This phe­nom­e­non is sim­i­lar to how we come to ap­pre­ci­ate mu­sic and each other as we grow older.

“Mu­sic is spir­i­tual. It pro­vides heal­ing and re­flec­tion,” Ray told me in one of our nu­mer­ous con­ver­sa­tions.

I re­mem­ber the time we hung out in his suite at the Sher­a­ton Ho­tel in Harare, Zim­babwe, dur­ing the Grace­land tour with Paul Si­mon in 1987.

Ray was al­ready onto some­thing with more soul, more depth. He was con­nected to mu­sic that an­swered some long­ing deep within him­self and within the lis­ten­ers. It was mu­sic that in­voked feel­ings we didn’t know we had.

South Africa was un­der a state of emer­gency. You wanted to hear some­one else’s pain ac­com­pany your own. You turned to mu­si­cians like Ray who pro­voked the soul and gave you hope that bet­ter days were around the cor­ner.

Un­ga­jindi, mfowethu. Asi­bekezela. Let’s per­se­vere, he said – our lives are about to change. A bet­ter to­mor­row awaits us and our chil­dren.

Ray had the op­por­tu­nity to make his mark over­seas af­ter tour­ing with Paul Si­mon and was part of the sub­se­quent Born at the Right Time world tour in 1991. But he chose to come back home af­ter Grace­land be­cause, he said, there was a story to fin­ish in our coun­try. And so he re­turned to record an al­bum ti­tled The Un­fin­ished Story.

RAY was good to me. Miriam Makeba, who was also part of the Grace­land tour, re­fused to do in­ter­views with South African jour­nal­ists at the time, but he took me by the hand and we went to Mama Afrika’s suite where he asked her to talk to me.

“Okay, I’ll give you 15 min­utes,” she said. We sat and talked for more than two hours. It was a scoop for DRUM and I be­came the first South African jour­nal­ist to in­ter­view her since she left the coun­try in 1959 – thanks to Ray.

Two years ear­lier Paul Si­mon had come to South Africa to look for mu­si­cians for his Grace­land al­bum.

This was at the height of the United Na­tions-spon­sored cul­tural boy­cott of South Africa.

Ray de­fended Si­mon and said the US record­ing and the in­ter­na­tional tour with black South Africans was it­self an ef­fec­tive state­ment against apartheid.

Ray be­lieved ques­tions re­gard­ing Si­mon’s mo­tives were filled with mis­in­for­ma­tion and ig­nored the fact that the Amer­i­can singer was help­ing to bring at­ten­tion to the mu­sic of South Africa and the strug­gle of its peo­ple.

Ray would call me from far­away places while he was play­ing with Si­mon and ask about my well- be­ing. When he came back he brought me presents and took me to the most ex­pen­sive restau­rants in Joburg.

AT THE time of his death, Ray was back home at Mayfern out­side Mbombela, where he was born 70 years ago. He started play­ing guitar at a young age, in­spired by his fa­ther, Just Now Phiri, a Malaw­ian im­mi­grant.

He would talk in glow­ing terms about his fa­ther, who had three fin­gers on his right hand af­ter he was in­jured by an agri­cul­tural ma­chine on a farm but could still play amaz­ing chords and riffs on the guitar.

De­spite our friend­ship, Ray was cagey about his fam­ily and per­sonal life.

“Look, the per­son who is in the lime­light is me, not my fam­ily,” he’d al­ways say. “I don’t want them to be recog­nised for the wrong things. So I won’t talk about them.”

In early 1990, how­ever, he opened up to me and told me how he felt he had ne­glected his fam­ily and spent many years away from them.

We were chat­ting at Down­town Stu­dios in Nugget Street, Joburg, and he burst into tears when he told me he had be­come a stranger to his wife and chil­dren.

For a fol­low-up story DRUM went to Mbombela to talk to his wife Daph­ney. The head­line was: “Ray, come back, we miss you.” Un­sur­pris­ingly, Ray was not im­pressed.

He is re­port­edly sur­vived by five chil­dren – Nonku, Randy, Linhle, Pholo and Akhona – but no­body knows ex­actly how many kids he had.

His was by all ac­counts a very in­ter­est­ing life. In 2011 Ray spoke about how Paul Si­mon didn’t credit him on the Grace­land al­bum for the songs he wrote and he and the SA mu­si­cians who con­trib­uted to the al­bum – that sold mil­lions of copies – hardly ben­e­fited from the roy­al­ties.

“But maybe I wouldn’t have been able to han­dle all that wealth,” he said.

“I sleep at night. I have my san­ity and en­joy liv­ing. The big rock ’n roll ma­chine did not munch me.”

LEFT: Ray Phiri per­form­ing with the late Nana Coy­ote, fel­low mem­ber of Stimela. ABOVE: Ray’s sons, Pholo and Akhona, re­mem­ber their fa­ther.

ABOVE and BE­LOW: Trib­utes streamed in on so­cial me­dia from fel­low artists, fans and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures.

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