Great SA Song: Stimela - Whispers in the Deep
‘The song is king” were among Ray Phiri’s first words when I told him I was seeking to discuss the late Nana Coyote’s songwriting role in Stimela. Of
course, he elaborated on the primary importance of the songwriter’s intent and how that is then shaped by the tools the songwriter has at his disposal.
Ultimately, though, what he was getting at was that his departed band-mate’s prowess lay principally in his interpretive genius and the emotive power of
his voice as opposed to his penmanship. Even in mourning, Phiri wanted us to remember that a good song outlives the singer.
In retrospect, it was a poignant moment. Of all the Stimela songs that had become the elegies of our apartheid nightmares, soothing the heaving beast’s
psychological toll on us, Whispers in the Deep stood recurrent for me, as I’m sure it did for many others.
It was the song that best exemplified the group’s defiance during those times and one that highlighted the cerebral singularity of Phiri versus the charismatic flamboyance of Coyote. It was important for us to remember that we were dynamic beings and Stimela understood that — hence their revolving-door policy that allowed them a measure of individual freedom.
But if the song has one overriding beauty, it is the ease with which it became both the medium and the message.
When Stimela was formed in 1981, Phiri had been playing guitar professionally since the early Sixties and the core group had been playing together since the Seventies, scoring several hits with Jacob ‘Mpharanyana” Radebe. Credited to Phiri and Ashley Subel, Whispers in the Deep was part of the album called Look, Listen and Decide, released in 1986. True to its name, the tune was exactly that — a long, poetic whisper, a wake-up call in the form of a gentle slap when the house was already on fire.
It was archetypical Stimela — indefinable yet cocksure, a perfect melding of their endless references that were part Cymande, part Osibisa and a wee bit of Fela’s irreverence. It was open-ended, elliptical songwriting at its best. You never quite knew where the verse resumed because the hook ended abruptly and the bridge approached surreptitiously. And, if it was news to
Paul Simon, we went through the entire thing barely noticing — such was the hypnotic power of Phiri’s delivery, the transcendental qualities of the
arrangements and the rousing verve of Coyote’s personality.
The opening lyrics were sung in Phiri’s plaintive, internalised style, where you never quite got the exact lyric but the imagery was conjured up. The
pictures in the lyrics recalled a marauding soul whose whispering voice echoed throughout the desolate land. When reaching out for a hand, the soul found, instead, an amputated stump (or is that storm?) that beat out the rhythm of the coming free.
From then on, aquatic metaphors dominated the ensuing verses. ‘We’re all tributaries of the great river of pain,” repeated Phiri after a breathtaking
bridge as the song picked up pace like a river bursting its banks to hurtle downstream.
Fourteen bars later, the track climbs yet another notch, as Coyote assumes full control of the vocal duties, riding the propulsive beat and the cascading piano downstream as though it were a careening raft. The narrative arc of the song is definitely one of darkness making way for light, recalling Linton Kwesi Johnson’s observations about listening to Bob Marley’s Exodus album in one sitting. Here, we are taken from the valley of death into the waters of love in a matter of minutes, Coyote’s ecstatic
chants of ‘ho lo lo — ho lo lo” signalling an arrival in the promised land.
In the mid-Eighties the song was almost a national anthem, even though some of us didn’t quite know why we should ‘phinda, mzala (say it again,
cousin)”. In the apparent absence of a lyric sheet (not that we needed much to improvise our own lyrics then), it was the sheer emotive quality of the
track that conveyed its affirmation of life and therefore its subversiveness.
From watching the video as kids, we just figured the man on the screen shouldn’t be crying. Although it’s no secret that the biggest hits Coyote
ever sang were probably not of his pen, his uniqueness was that he owned them in ways their authors never could.
Whispers in the Deep
Distant sleep right in your eye
The face is tasty food for rotting flies
Call me angry, call me mad
A soul that whispers in the deep
But echoes all throughout the land
Reaches out to find a hand
But finds an amputated stump
That tells the story of the lonely
And beats the rhythm of the free
I’m inspired I cannot understand hate
Khawuphinde, khawuphinde mzala
Whose songs are as truthful as a dream
Flows as steady as a stream
A stream of knowledge and of pain
Of one whose thoughts begin to wane
Allow the sleepy to retire
Because their love blows out the fire
I can see your pointed fingers
Your eyes binoculars
I’m inspired, I cannot understand hate
Whispers in the deep, bayahleba
We’re all tributaries of this great river of pain
Flowing into one ocean
There’s only one motion
All our pains flow into it
But it did spill over
Spill over the waters of love
Into a great nation of love
Before we recognise that all the oceans are one
Kawuphinde mzala mhh
Kawuphinde mzala ho lo lo
Ho lo lo ... Ho lo lo
Ungahlebi, speak out your mind
Don’t be afraid, don’t whisper in the deep
Speak out your mind, stand up