The train has finally reached its’ destination with Stimela founder Raymond Chikapa Phiri bowing out at age 70 at the Nelspruit Hospital following a battle with lung cancer.
By Mamodima Ndlovu
The jazz legend leaves behind a musical legacy like no other that has brought generations of African people together in dance and celebration during weddings, funeral ‘after-tears’, family gatherings and festivals.
Max Mojapelo recorded Phiri’s humble history in his book ‘Beyond Memory: Recording the History. Moments and Memories of South African Music’. Phiri was born on March 23, 1947, in a mining town called Hermannsburg, to a Malawian migrant working mother and John Mshana Zulu. Three years later, Zulu died and soon after his mother, Minah married guitarist Kanyama ‘Just Now’ Phiri.
At age four, Phiri was hospitalized for nine years at the Crocodile Valley Hospital for calcium deficiency.
The young Phiri’s colourful journey with music was triggered by Kanyama’s performances which enticed him into making his own tin guitar. In 1962, ‘Just Now’ handed over his guitar to Phiri after losing his fingers in an accident at work. By 1967, Phiri’s confidence sent him on his way with his first gig as a dancer in a group called The Five Boys. In 1968, Phiri moved to Daveyton in Ekurhuleni where he continued dancing with the Jabavu Queens. “His dance moves earned him the nickname ‘Mfana-sbungu’ because it was as if he had no bones in his body, like a worm,” wrote Mojapelo.
In 1970, Phiri joined The Cannibals as a guitarist and began recording with Gallo Records. Part of the band was Paul Ndlovu and Anna Sikwane on vocals, Isaac Mtshali on drums, Richard Shongwe on bass, Ephraim Hlophe on keyboard and Jacob ‘Mpharanyana’ Radebe who died together with the group in 1979.
In 1980, the motions of a powerful train took off and Stimela was born, subsequently starting an era of dance and protest music against the apartheid regime. This hit-making band was made up of Phiri and Ntokozo Zungu as the lead guitarists, whilst Phiri also lead the vocals with Nana Coyote and Sam Ndlovu as well as Isaac Mtshali as the drummer, and Thapelo Kgomo on the keyboards and Bafana Khuzwayo on the organ. However, the founding band entailed of both Phiri and Mtshali along with Lloyd Lelosa on keyboards and Jabu Sibambu on bass guitar.
The Afro-fusion group went on to release over 20 albums including multi-platinum award winning ‘Fire, Passion and Ecstasy’, ‘Listen, Look and Decide’ and the controversial ‘People Don’t Talk, So Let’s Talk’ under the management of TM Performing Arts.
While South Africa continued burning in 1986, Phiri was invited to work with American artist and one-half of the Simon and Garfunkel duo, Paul Simon. It was the struggle of the day that leads the creativity and passion of the successful musical movement and had Simon state: “What gives (governments) the right to wear the cloak of morality? Their morality comes out of a barrel of a gun.”
The Graceland Projects included internationally acclaimed mbaqanga group Ladysmith Black Mambazo amongst other greats. Phiri and Simon later recorded Rhythm of the Saints.
In 1987, ‘The Unfinished Story’ tour was stopped suddenly due to a fatal accident that claimed the lives of seven members of the Stimela famiy. In 2003, Phiri survived yet another fatal car collision that claimed the life of his wife, Daphney Phiri.
In 1989, Phiri ventured out as a solo artist and produced A Man, A Dog and a Cow, How and 11 years with the help of Lindelani Mathonsi.
The seasoned guitarman proved that the power he had in music was timeless when he collaborated with rapper Young Nations in his Zwakala Mzansi hit single in 2005.
Phiri’s legacy will live on in the Ray Phiri Arts Institute in his hometown which was built for the development and advancement of creativity in the country.
Even as a recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, no accolade will outshine Phiri’s spirit of music and the change he brought to the nation during his lifetime.
Phiri is survived by his five children.