Writing Ray between the lines

Intellectual: Ray Phiri was one of the headliners during the Zakifo Music Festival in Durban in May, despite his lung cancer. (Thuli Dlamini/The Times/Gallo Images)

Intellectual: Ray Phiri was one of the headliners during the Zakifo Music Festival in Durban in May, despite his lung cancer. (Thuli Dlamini/The Times/Gallo Images)

I marvelled silently at the lush, rolling hilltop greenery beyond the window I stood at, wondering just how I had wound up there in the white, airy, open-plan thatched-roof house on a suburban Nelspruit hill.

In the background, music wafted a notch or two below the chatty voices and intermittent laughter of a group of record label executives from the now long-defunct Primedia Music.

This was the erstwhile sonic imprint of the giant media group that had poached some of the most visible execs up for grabs from the multinational majors at the time, who in turn had signed some topical acts — among them Kabelo, Magesh, Speedy and Danny K — and the media fell in love with them as much as they did with their artists. The label’s oldest and most accomplished industry smash-and-grab was our host, Ray Chikapa Phiri.

As the conversation became increasingly animated, Phiri toiled away quietly in his kitchen, cooking us a hearty Sunday meal after a weekend of music, drink and far too little sleep.

He had launched the album Chikapa’s 11 Years the previous night in familiar surroundings, with old and new fans in the audience, with whom he patiently interacted after the show. He also filled 20 minutes with tales about learning to play the guitar and deeply personal reflections on his stepfather’s influence, with characteristic vulnerability and a touch of measured, infectious, shamanic madness.

He spoke of his regular journeys from Mpumalanga to Gauteng and how, as soon as he would see Johannesburg on the distant horizon, a heaviness would descend and anxiety would set in.

Jozi, as breakneck and free as it is, is also a bitch of a place to tolerate. Meditation, music and reading were the only remedies, he explained.

He was a clear and thoughtful communicator, yet incurably metaphoric, a joy to behold in an industry flooded by vapid fast talkers.

I was a young music writer then, chasing gigs and hangovers around the country and on this particular weekend my quest had led me to a giant’s house for an exclusive interview. Inexplicably, he had requested me by name, his handlers had explained.

Later, as we sat down for a formal chat, the voracious reader explained that he had followed my career ever since I tore apart an under-par album from an otherwise exceptional artist, 18 months prior.

I had been a fan of Stimela since my dad introduced me to them in the 1980s and there I was, decades later, sitting in front of the man who was emblematic of their musicality, lyricism and activism, and he was telling me that he was a fan. If my memory serves me, I struggled to write that profile, the thought of heightened expectation and inevitable critique from a formidable subject weighing heavily on my anxious shoulders.

Over the ensuing years I would see him occasionally and he would consistently show me tremendous generosity with his time, wisdom and the occasional book recommendation. I also interviewed him periodically for print and a little show I had on community radio.

In 2010, I was honoured to write the official Stimela biography when the band reunited for a new album, A Lifetime, their first in 15 years. I had struggled to lock him down for an interview and eventually pinned down an hour on the phone while he prepared to check out of a Maputo hotel room.

Again, his generosity overflowed, centering the healing process that the recording process had become for him and his Stimela brothers. They had locked themselves in a house, with all their equipment and residual angst from the kinds of things that can go unsaid between brothers over decades. A psychologist was enlisted to facilitate this snake stomping.

Although at the time we had already hosted a successful World Cup and were still under “Phillip’s” misleading unity spell, the discourse in the country concerned him, as it had always done for the cultural and sociopolitical emissaries of song. His concern for our direction may have seemed alarmist in a year we shattered all the odds, but time has ushered in a chilling vindication.

He also took time to deviate, painting dreamy Mozambican travelscapes and their spiritual parallels with an album rich with an intergenerational mix that included Nana Coyote, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Puff Johnson, Thandiswa Mazwai and Black Coffee on a remix. A Lifetime, I wrote at the time, was “unmistakably nostalgic, yet steeped in a modernity”, begging for new ears.

He was always seeking and relevant. In recent years, at his advanced age, he had embraced fatherhood once again and reinforced his connection with the elements, his body and what he put in it. One needs to concede, however, that his long relationship with cigarettes may have been the gateway to the lung cancer that finally claimed him.

We have lost a masterful guitarist, raucous dancer, dextrous songwriter and underappreciated intellectual.

Rest well, Bra Ray; we will always remember.


Tributes by artists, fans and friends

Tears are flowing in Phelendaba

Tears are flowing in Soshanguve

Tears are flowing in Hammanskraal

Ba lela ko Mamelodi

Ba tshedisana kodipotong,

ditarvern

le diteksing


Tears are flowing

In backrooms, boys’ rooms

Dibig house tsa dibig windows


Stimela

The marrow in our musical bones


Ray Phiri

A super hero philosopher

Of the people


Chikapa

The rock star of Azania


I do not remember not having Stimela’s music in my life. Every uncle blasted it from their back rooms and throughout our childhood in the townships — the beautiful music of the supergroups, Stimela, Sankomota and Sakhile.

My belief in magic is strongly connected to my exposure to the likes of Ray Phiri, Thapelo Khomo, Themba Mkhize, Sandile Ngema, Frank Leepa and Sello Montwedi.

I never thanked my parents for taking us to see Stimela in Moretele Park, Mamelodi, in the early 1990s. I wasn’t allowed to go to big gatherings but they let us go with them to an evening that’s never left me.

A few years later Mr Phiri himself made an appearance in our flat in Berea for my mother’s birthday.  To say my sister and I were star-struck is an understatement. We vowed to never wash our hands again.

Ray Phiri will always be my hero.

I have carried their music into my adult life and those glorious years have contributed to me becoming a memory keeper of the township experience. No matter how many computers, laptops or hard drives I have lost I always replace the triple S collection. I have bought the steam tracks CD a few times. These amazing musicians have monuments in our hearts. It is truly the end of an era. — Masello Motana

...

The morning after a wild night in Harare we met and all the mythologising stopped. The truth was stranger, more beautiful than fiction. The bravery to be and to live a life that honest. A true artist, only an entertainer in his little finger, the one that played the high notes. An icon, a teacher, mentor and friend. And father to our friend Nonku. Rest in power, Ray. — Mpumelelo Mcata

...

Attend any party that flirts with the sonic heritage of South Africa, and you are guaranteed to hear Stimela at some point.

Even more impressive is people own every note as they devote their entire being to the moment. Even the South African thing of perfectly synchronised dancing takes a pause as the spirit that possessed Ray Phiri on stage takes over. 

Ray Phiri and Stimela delivered overtly political music yet did not reduce themselves to instruments of political resistance. Rather than just fight for our political emancipation, the music reclaims and centres African humanity. Lala Ngoxolo bab’Ray Phiri. — Mxolisi Makhubo

...

I grew up in the United States listening to records by South African legends.  My father was a muso and would always pull out the vinyls when we had braais there.

My first vivid memory of Ray Phiri is when he performed in New Jersey. I must’ve been 10 years old. His stage presence was amazing and his performance gave me some sense of
“home”. 

Fast forward to 2010 and Stimela launched the album A Lifetime. I was called in to work with the band on PR and performance attire. The first person I called was my dad. “You have no idea who I’m going to be working with, Ray Phiri!”

I had the honour of spending a few months with the band leading up to the launch. Phiri exuded humility and his dry, sarcastic humour was unmatched. We debated everything from politics to religion.

He reignited my love for reading when he gave me The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. That book taught me the importance of refusing to compromise my artistic and personal vision to gain recognition, popularity and so-called success. 

He was an amazing subject and a dream to style. — Mpumi Ntintili-Sinxoto

...

Ray felt like my contemporary, even though he was 20 years older.

He’d dance his chicken dance
at my friend and fashion photographer Costa Economides’ studio in Jo’burg.

These parties were free — lots of joints, lots of acid, lots of speed. We’d naively celebrate the spirit of possibility brewing in the early 1980s to the sounds of Donny Hathaway, the Staple Singers and the Movers.

When I answered his calls, Ray would respond: “People don’t talk, so let’s talk, Rosie!” — Rose Francis

...

Stimela was the heartbeat of South Africa.  No other band has influenced our politics as these musicians did.

They had such an identifiable way of articulating the politics of the time, extrapolating from the black condition.  It’s one reason Paul Simon was attracted to the group.

I once had an insightful convo about the history and future of South African politics with Bra Ray.  He had interesting theories and politics peppered Stimela’s music.

We have lost one of the greatest, most humble minds to ever grace our music industry and societal landscape. — Simphiwe Dana

...

And there he sat beneath the tree, with dreams in his fingers speaking life into his hands, a soul yearning to play the music in his heart. He plucked away at strings of rainbows chanting memories relived.

And there he sat beneath the tree with freedom in his gaze, the Golden Ray of every Graceland shining in his face.

And now, here lies his body, but he still lives.  A spirit with a gift to pray for us in song.  We’ll speak of him as a soldier armed with love. His deeds won’t be forgotten. His soul is now released. — Zweli Mthembu

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