It’s a Thursday night at The Orbit in Braamfontein. I’ve never seen the venue heaving at such capacity, and madalas and lighties alike are bugging out — their arms outstretched and their eyes turned skywards, enraptured by Ray Phiri as he performs Zwakala, the hit song from Stimela’s 1985 record, Shadows, Fear and Pain.
But that doesn’t mean that the show is good. Sure, it is enjoyable but for the first half of the set the energy is flat and sections of the band seem lazy and uncertain why they are on stage.
Thankfully, during the second half, Phiri’s famous puppet dance and his unwavering songwriting save him. The audience, so enthralled by the idol of their youth, are able to produce enough energy to feed the band.
As an aside, it is in fact Mandisa Dlanga who steals the show. She has worked as a backing vocalist for Phiri for the past 30 years, as well as working regularly with Johnny Clegg and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
Throughout the performance, my eyes keep reverting to Dlanga, positioned at the corner of the stage but subtly commanding attention with her powerful voice and presence.
The fact that there is a strong history of fierce women backing vocalists helping to prop up the musical careers of men is not lost on Phiri. True to his self-deprecating humour, he makes a joke about not having vocal talent and acknowledges the contribution Dlanga has made to his career, and hails her as a friend.
Nevertheless, I’m of the opinion that music veterans in this country don’t really have to do very much to get the approval of an already doting audience — especially if they were relevant enough during the struggle to get some of their songs banned by the apartheid regime.
These musicians are like catnip to our persistent sentimentality, to our masterful and paradoxical balancing acts between nostalgia and amnesia.
Undoubtedly there was a time when Phiri and Stimela formed the soundtrack to family parties across Southern Africa — my own included. But that was at least 20 years ago. Since then, Phiri has released several studio and live albums, none quite as successful as those he released in the 1980s and 1990s — Fire, Passion and Ecstasy, as well as Look, Listen and Decide and People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk.
Even though I found myself singing along, as young as I am, I kept questioning whether or not he’s still “got it”.
Phiri is not blind to this question. He can’t afford to be. He’s 70 years old and is preparing to go on a regional tour next month with his seven-piece, multigenerational band in a musical climate in which
Cassper Nyovest is filling up stadiums and rape apologists are still given headlining slots across the country.
When I speak to Phiri over the phone, me in Johannesburg and him on his family farm in Mpumalanga, he is open and honest about why he’s chosen to continue performing: “I can reinvent myself because I love concepts. I’m not scared of diving in the deep end … After doing [this] for so many years, you tend to rely very much on your butterflies.
“The day I don’t get scared is the day I’ll stop playing music … I become a nervous wreck because I respect my audience and I respect the music.”
Afraid of taking things for granted, Phiri speaks about himself, his new management deal with Black Major and his upcoming studio album featuring local and international collaborators as a journey “into the wilderness; not knowing whether [I’m] going to meet a hyena … a scavenger or a predator”.
The man known to many as Uncle Ray is a big fan of metaphors. He asks quietly, but bravely: “Am I going to be prey?”
Either way, he’s excited by the opportunity to discover new things about himself and to have the opportunity to work with younger artists such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Damian Marley at the Zakifo Festival in Durban from May 26 to 28.
He’ll also be playing in places such as Maputo and Réunion Island, where he will be able to draw from the polyrhythms and zouks that “fuel [me] and give [me] hope … to have a clever [and more pan-African] conversation” around music.
He attributes this possibility to his band, whom he describes as “masters of interpretation” who are able to play a single song in a multiplicity of ways, drawing from a multiplicity of influences.
He believes this is the legacy he’s leaving to younger performers — helping them to engage more imaginatively with the musical archives of our continent, so as to avoid being what Phiri terms a “musical doppelganger”. It’s now Black Major’s role to help him to make them listen.
For me, Phiri’s value to our contemporary scene is not what he terms his “vast knowledge of music” but rather his gift of insight and his storytelling ability.
He opens his show at The Orbit by asking a question from his album People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk: “Can there be peace in the valley when I look at strangers claiming the burial grounds of my forefathers?”
He is viscerally conscious of the ways this album was prophetic —released in 1992 around the time of the Codesa negotiations to usher in democracy, yet still cognisant of the important ways in which those talks would inevitably fail us as a country.
I ask him quite plainly: “Uncle Ray, where do you sit with regard to land reform?”
His response: “Sometimes we have a tendency to think that yesterday didn’t happen, but it happened. Because we didn’t pay attention to detail, that’s why these things keep on coming back to us. Because we haven’t put it to sleep.
“Maybe fear is ruling our lives and we are afraid to face ourselves, to laugh at ourselves, to speak not in forked tongues … I may say things that might sound outdated. I am living where I grew up, where my umbilical cord was buried … So land reform is a must. But our approach should be very, very certain. We must know our path [and ask]: How did we lose this?”
Sitting at The Orbit, I can’t help but wonder whether Phiri is, as he said, “outdated”. But I think, if you pay attention and truly listen, you’ll find that he gets it. He’s an uncle who, much as he likes to share his knowledge and experience with young people, understands the ways in which his generation has failed us. He’s eager to learn by constantly playing with words and song.
During our chat, I subtly steer the conversation towards his experiences of playing in the former Venda homeland, by Nandoni Dam and Lake Fundudzi.
I once heard an interview in which he said that this was the site of the most memorable performance of his career, and I couldn’t resist an opportunity to satisfy my own curiosity in the stories of the white crocodile and the white python that protect Fundudzi, the lake of ancestors.
He starts to relay a story about the region being “a place of spirits” and, in mid-sentence, stops and exclaims: “Oh! I love my life!”
I can’t help but chortle at the other end of the line.
He continues: “I’m very lucky, because I was given an opportunity to be a storyteller. We’ve been geniuses long before we heard the word ‘genius’ as a people, because we have a story to tell.
“There are so many stories but we haven’t started telling our stories. I want to believe that we haven’t really started.”
On the cover of Stimela’s album The Unfinished Story, there’s a news caption collage that reads: “Ray Phiri pleads with fellow artists to sing meaningful songs … Stimela stands for black upliftment.”
Thirty-odd years down the line, his mission has not changed. Phiri is brave, honest and an uninhibited lover of prose — in both song and conversation.
Hopefully this new chapter in his career will reflect that in a revitalised way.