Ray  ‘Chikapa’ Phiri

Ray ‘Chikapa’ Phiri

ON MONDAY morning, there was no one when I got to the office, I guess I was too early. And so I went to the corner where I met this old iron pole and started pummelling it in a rhythm; not intentionally, for making music was not the original intention: I just wanted to keep warm the old way, by moving on a cold foggy morning.
The iron answered my beating with melodic notes that gave birth to the song of the early morning fog, a song to which I stuck my auricles, my tympanums (drums), and my soul; the time moved, and I forgot about the wait.

Half-way between the middle-section and the end of the solo session, I remembered a day fishing by the forest on the banks of the river Mohokare.
On that particular day I had decided to take my guitar to ‘work’, perhaps to serenade the fish out of the depths, or, just to chase away the riverside blues.
A mild breeze blew over the guitar strings where it rested on the branch of a tree by the river’s side, and immediately I was hooked on the harmonious melody of the guitar being played by the wind.

It was a nice tune played by the fingers of the angels themselves, and though I could not place the exact note (which of course was E), I could not help grinning like a fool, tickled by the fact that God had bothered to play me a tune on my guitar.
It was a riff similar in melody to the harmony of Stimela’s See the World Through the Eyes of a Child, and last week, when I heard that Ray ‘Chikapa’ Phiri had gone to join the orchestra beyond the Pearly Gates, I could not help but feel that sad sweet joyful pain one feels when a giant in music passes on.
I was a kid knee-high to my uncles when Zwakala Kaneno was the song at every party, the anthem at every gathering in the dying years of the Apartheid era.
The men behind Stimela Ray Phiri, Nana Coyote Motjitjwana, Isaac Mtshali, Jabu Sibumbe, Ntokozo Zungu, Charlie Ndlovu, Thapelo Kgomo, Thabo Lloyd Lelosa all made up for a crew that makes the lonesome journey across the landscapes of life a more tolerable affair.

So serene is the music that one would not mistake the listen thereof to its eponym, the steam train; shongololo lefokololi la lithota (the millipede of the open savannah) with the notes representing the rhythmic clickety-clack of the steel wheels, and the harmony as smooth as the ethereal movement of the millipede’s thousand legs flowing over the red African soil.
Listening to Stimela is an experience that leaves the soul clean of all ills, leaves the spirit soaring as an eagle in the clear blue of the stratospheric azure above the clouds where the storms are below.

Now that Ray is gone and Nana went away a few years ago, the world of music is the poorer. The only consolation is that the sound of Stimela is still here with us to keep us keeping on even when the road ahead stretches far beyond the horizons of hope.
The self-taught guitarist, and son of a Malawian immigrant founded Stimela in the 1970’s with drummer Isaac Mtshali, Thabo Lloyd Lelosa and Jabu Sibumbe and they initially called themselves The Cannibals, starting out as instrumentalists but later evolved into Afro-Fusion when they joined forces with the Sotho-Soul maestro Jacob ‘Mpharanyana’ Radebe.

It is said the band changed their name to ‘Stimela’ after they were stranded for three months in Maputo, and actually had to sell all their belongings to take a train home.
Seen as a watershed moment in their career as musicians, this somewhat familiar tale of the struggle of the African band gave birth to a band that under the leadership of Raymond Chikapa Enock Phiri born on the 23rd of March 1947 thrived.

Though he passed away on the 12th of July 2017 Ray Phiri was a South African giant of jazz, afro-fusion and Mbaqanga.
The musician was born in Hermansberg, Nelspruit, in the then Eastern Transvaal, and now Mpumalanga Province in South Africa, to a Malawian immigrant father and a South African mother Thabethe Phiri (who is reputedly 113 years old!).
His guitarist father was nicknamed “Just Now” Phiri. When the Cannibals disbanded, Ray founded Stimela, with whom he conceived gold and platinum-selling albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstacy (1982), Look, Listen and Decide (1986).

Most of us remember the 1985 Graceland Tour, in which Paul Simon asked Ray along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians to join his Graceland project, a move which turned to be highly successful as evidenced by the reception from audiences at various venues across the globe where the Graceland concerts were staged.
This was perhaps one of the many high points in the story of Stimela and Ray Phiri was to collaborate with Simon again on his Rhythm of the Saints album, which saw him perform in over 30 countries in the years 1990 and 1991.

Venues included The Concert in The Park in the August of 1991, New York Central Park and New York’s Madison Square Garden. There were also appearances on Saturday Night Live and other top television shows in the United States.
The tour concluded in early 1992 with concerts staged in South Africa at venues in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban. In 2012, Paul Simon organised a European Graceland 25th Anniversary Tour in which Phiri also contributed.

However, in a 2011 interview with The Sunday Times Phiri said that there was misunderstanding between him and Simon.
I remember watching a show where Ray Phiri maintained that Paul Simon never gave him credit for the songs he had written for Graceland, and that some of the guitar licks were plagiarised for, as Ray put it, “those were the rhythms my father used to play, and so for Paul to come and claim they were his… I felt it was wrong and confronted him about it.”
There was also the mention that the Isicthamiya giants, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “hardly got any royalties” to which he added: “maybe I wouldn’t have been able to handle all that wealth. I sleep at night, I have my sanity and I enjoy living. The big rock ‘n’ roll machine did not munch me.”

One could guess that the story of the bad blood between Ray and Simon encompasses the plight of the African musician and artist; whose work is never honoured until some politician can make a speech at their funeral, or some ‘Good Samaritan’ from overseas picks an interest in the products of their craft.
Artists are not respected in Africa, why? I guess our leaders are too dumb to see the true value of art, so absorbed in their narcissistic tendencies they are.
A quote from a brief biography states that, “In his personal life Phiri was involved in a series of car accidents which had an impact on his personal life and musical career. Phiri was badly injured in 1987 in a crash that claimed the lives of his band manager and six others.

In 2003, his wife was killed in a car accident, with Ray escaping serious injury. Phiri was diagnosed with lung cancer and died at the age of 70 on 12 July 2017 at a Nelspruit hospital.”
If one were to ask the reason why the family had to resort to the usual ‘crowd-funding initiative’ in the maestro’s last days as revealed in The Citizen of July the 16th 2017, then one really begins to understand the sense of worthlessness with which our arts are regarded on the continent.

Only one out of ten artists that become celebrities will have a decent funeral, for the reality is that most of them die paupers.
Then the lobbyists shall share their pretentious mournful eulogies and give a half-informed account on the life and the times of the hero.
It is well known that Ray Phiri and Stimela have received many awards in recognition for their contribution not only in the music industry, but also in the political emancipation of the country of South Africa from the clutches of prolonged violation of Basic Human Rights by the oppressive and racist system that Apartheid was.

One of those awards Ray received is the prestigious Order of Ikhamanga in Silver awarded to him by the South African president Jacob Zuma in April 2011.
This was to honour his sterling contribution to the South African music industry and the successful use of arts as an instrument of social transformation.
Social transformation comes at a cost on this continent, arms and legs are lost, gallons of blood are spilled, and torrents of sweat with their waterfalls of tears are shed, and all the time; the songbirds come up with songs to keep the spirits of the soldiers in the unceasing African battle for the future against the background of a tumultuous past buoyed.
Without the songs and the slogans composed by the maestros of music on the continent, we would not be where we are today.
Only those songs kept our spirits afloat on our crossing of this dark river of dreams.
I believe Ray would not want for anyone to heap praises on him or his memory, to eulogise at this moment in time, rather, he would expect for whoever speaks in his name to mention the good deeds he did.

One finds that the tendency is to exaggerate, which is well and good in the eyes of the hypocritical, but one finds that that the true spirit of the late is thus missed, and in a way their memory is insulted in the pursuit of the superlative.

From his statements, one can gather the fact that Ray Phiri was a simple man, a masterful guitarist, a good husband and a father who had to take the carpetbagging road of the travelling musician not only for the sake of his children but also for the sake of his fellow countrymen.

A search for the lyrics of his band’s masterpiece See the World Through the Eyes of a Child on the web brings back no result (sad considering the fact that he played on stages across the world), a fact I always question; why is it that our art and its craftsmen are not given due consideration? It seems that African art is only good when it is making money for someone, if not, then it is merely forgotten.

It is well and good when musicians compose political party slogans and enjoy their ‘hero of the day’ status at party rallies, after which they are forgotten as their music is sold as pirate editions for the benefit of the illegal music publishers and printers who are never punished for the theft of the intellectual property of the musicians.
Africa just does not care, and the opening lyrics to the song See the World Through the Eyes of a Child make an exhortation to a fellow brother, to a bigger power tasked by fate to ensure the welfare of all (the government):

Won’t you please write a letter to yourself
Maybe we’ll touch base when I receive your love
Won’t you please take this child far away
There’s too much blood flowing around
Please peace save this child
Won’t you please take this child by the hand
Put a smile on the child’s face…

I am tired of hearing of the subtle tales of the pauperism in the latter years of heroes that served the state and the country with all of their heart, all of their might, and all of their mind.
That some are honoured and guaranteed lavish lifestyles for their entire lifetimes, whilst others are forced to burn the midnight oil for theirs unceasingly, then Ray Phiri’s ‘controversial’ People Don’t Talk, So Let’s Talk had a meaning after all

The death of one soldier brings with it the birth of another, and Ray lived for a purpose, and shone upon everyone that had the opportunity to listen to his music.
It was all for a divinely ordained purpose. Let us not dim his brightness by being complacent in the fight for African music rights. Shine on Ray.
Shine on.

Tsepiso S Mothibi

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