Paying tribute to music legend Ray Phiri
Veteran DRUM journalist Kaizer Ngwenya remembers his friend, legendary musician Ray Phiri
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.