May the sun never set on Ray

The prophet: Stimela’s Ray Phiri spoke to the complexities of his time through his music. (Lucky Nxumalo/Sowetan/Gallo Images)

The prophet: Stimela’s Ray Phiri spoke to the complexities of his time through his music. (Lucky Nxumalo/Sowetan/Gallo Images)

One Sunday evening at Johannesburg’s Downtown Studios, I came across a gleaming plaque celebrating the double platinum status of Stimela’s 1986 album Look, Listen and Decide.

Looking at the plaque, its shimmery reflection almost defying the act of being photographed, I felt an inexplicable warm rush engulf me. Thinking about it now, it was not the plaque itself, but what it symbolised. The groove machine that was Stimela, helmed by the penmanship of Ray Chikapa Phiri, defied all the limitations and stereotypes hemming in the oppressed mass at the height of Botha’s State of Emergency.

As the sales attest, Stimela was the all-purpose pop music of my parents’ generation.  One barb aimed at the mind, while the other went for that funky behind. As children, we were out there catching contact highs, like the errant fumes of a braai filtering in from next door.

On the day the news of Phiri’s passing broke, I went to that album again. Refusing the impulse to skip to “Phinda Mzala” (as Whispers in the Deep was colloquially known), I fell again into the deep science that was Phiri’s entendre-laced songwriting.  Take for example the lead song Look, Listen and Decide.

Because he had to, Phiri mastered the game of melding themes of political justice and romantic love into one.

We’re trapped in this game of love/ Four people busy destroying each other/ We are all in love but going about it the wrong way/ … Friends in love spending nights alone

The theory sounds like a reach, even to myself.  But not wholly. Why four?

Four people trapped in love, there is no compromise/ Fools believing in dreams/ Hoping the light of day will bring happiness/ We are afraid to reach out and touch/ Pride is destroying everything we got

Sure, Phiri may have been caught up in a love quadrangle but it also sounds to me like a man looking out the window and catching not the inviting whiff of a neighbour’s braai but the putrid fumes of burning flesh. The album title too. It sounds like the ultimatum issued to a circle of polyamorous “friends”, but actually, it was more likely a “friendly” warning to a regime whose ideas were simply running out of time.  Okay fine, since we are already talking about compromise, perhaps it was all these themes rolled into one, leaving the apartheid censors not sure where the scalpel should fall.

Everybody would be happy if we could stop being foolish/ and live like we could be happy together

Now that’s a lyric, my friend. Not blind to the needs of the ego but also in touch with a higher vibration. 

“In his songwriting, he assumed the role of the philosopher songwriter,” says Rob Allingham, a music historian who is involved in digitising a vast archive of South African music. “While they [his lyrics] were deeply reflective of the state of South African society at the time, he was not writing freedom songs or struggle songs. They were not overly political but they were deeply analytical. I can’t quite think of anyone who occupied that space at the time.”

Phiri, it seems, drew from the entire sum of the human experience, distilling that into episodic snapshots on wax.  Far from some nebulous, abstracted philosophy, it seems Phiri drew from the fluidity of life itself.

Stimela bass player Jabu Sibumbe speaks of Phiri’s songwriting as simply up to the time. “He was, in a word, a prophet,” says Sibumbe. “Wayeboniswa that guy. If you look at those lyrics now, they seem to be asking the question: ‘After freedom, what is going on?’ It is like we have to look, listen and decide again. It can be right down to party politics but it is also about what is happening in our families.” Growing up in Nelpruit, Sibumbe and Phiri followed different, sometimes interweaving, musical paths, eventually merging these by the 1980s to form Stimela.

Sibumbe says the influence of LM Radio (Radio Lourenzo Marques, active in Maputo from 1936 to 1975) subconsciously wove an ethos of eclecticism into their approach, fusing, as it did, everything from Crosby, Stills and Nash to the Union of South Africa. There was the environmental noise as well. “At noon, we might be checking out gospel, by three we are espotini and by six we are hippies.”

Sound engineer Dave Segal remembers Phiri being as much a Steely Dan fan as he was a Frankie Beverly devotee.

Drummer Isaac Mtshali, a mbaqanga devotee, remembers books and fragments of information being distilled into song. Sibumbe says think reggae, and you have an idea where his bass was pointing.  Sibumbe and Phiri’s shared affinity for dancing may just have found its way into their elongated, bouncy grooves as well.

“[In rehearsal,] Mtshali and I would play the feel of the groove,” says Sibumbe. “Ray would start mumbling something until he had a melody. We didn’t have a rotation or a format when it came to song structure, it would simply come along the line, like a vibe from a shebeen. Before the song was tightly locked in, we’d take it to the studio. No straight bars, just vice versa.”

Phiri, it seems, embodied sound, movement and survival. A song such as the achingly emotional Highland Drifter is not only pure melancholy but a pact between flesh and soul not to be outdone by the environment, harsh and rocky as it may be.

The self-puppeteering, almost feline “Rubberman” was indeed our indefatigable seer.

Lung cancer may have just come for his ninth life.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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