In 1967, after earning R35 by dancing on stage at the Lowveld Showground, Ray “Chikapa” Phiri set off for Johannesburg, with the aim of making it in the music industry. Forty years later, he’s a bo-nafide legend whose career as composer, singer and guitarist is showing no signs of slowing down as he enters his seventies.
Already Phiri and his band are booked for several leading festivals in 2017, including Safiko Musik Festival (Reunion Island), Bushfire (Swaziland), Africa Day (Johannesburg), Festival Azgo (Moçambique) and Zakifo Music Festival (Durban).
Alongside his growing slate of live performances, a recording of Ray Phiri: The Man, The Music & Friendships, a critically acclaimed 2016 performance at Johannesburg’s Bassline, is due to be released early May 2017. Fans will also be thrilled to know that preparations are currently underway for a new studio album featuring a host of local and international collaborations.
It’s no surprise to discover that Phiri isn’t content with resting on his quite considerable laurels – which include being awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver in 2011 (for his contribution to the South Af-rican music industry and the successful use of the arts as an instru-ment of social transformation) and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 18th South African Music Awards in 2012. He has always been driven by a deep curiosity for the world around him and a passion for making music that’s deeply planted in the country that he was born into. Neither of these have diminished as he’s grown older.
“I’m a student of life and I’ll never stop discovering, creating, and ex-ploring,” says Phiri of his energy to continue recording, writing and performing when others might be eyeing a quieter life.
Growing up near Nelspruit, in (now) Mpumalanga’s Crocodile Valley Cistrus Estate farming community, Phiri’s early explorations into music were inspired by the man his mother married after his fa-ther’s death, Justnow Kanyama Phiri. The Malawian troubadour played his guitar with puppets dangling on the one end. It was utter-ly mesmerising to his young step-son who learnt how to dance by watching the swinging and swaying puppets. When Justnow lost several fingers in an accident and could no longer play the guitar, Ray secretly began teaching himself how to play on his step-father’s now neglected instrument. It was the beginning of the career of an artist widely considered to be among the greatest guitarists the Afri-can continent has ever produced.
For those who know Phiri for his extraordinary lyrical, soulful and unique guitarwork it might be amusing to know that the musician’s first performances were not as a guitarist but as a dancer for mba-qanga group, Jabuva Queens (who scored a big local hit in 1968, with the single “Sponono”). In 1971, however, Phiri co-founded in-strumental band the Cannibals. Fom that moment on his musician-ship was well and truly cemented, with dancing now relegated to the background.
The Cannibals fast become a flagbearer of Soweto soul – a Stax Rec-ords-influenced township funk that dominated the scene from the mid to the late 70s. Three gold albums and nearly 30 gold singles flowed out of the band, and the Cannibals were soon working with the most gifted Soweto soul singer of them all, Jacob “Mpharanyana” Radebe. It’s Phiri’s simply sublime lead guitar that you hear on many of Mpharanyana’s recordings with The Cannibals during the period 1975 until the singer’s untimely death in 1979.
Also part of the Cannibals line-up were Isaac “Mnca” Mtshali (drums), Thabo Lloyd Lelosa (keyboard) and Jabu Sibumbe (bass), and they joined Phiri in founding Stimela in the late 70s. Vocalist Nana Coyote, and Thapelo Kgomo (keyboards) later added their considerable talents to the Stimela line-up.
From the late 70s and much of the 1980s Stimela’s soul-filled, funk-driven music was a mainstay of music fans across southern Africa, who were inspired as much by the group’s socially conscious lyrical content as its incendiary live performances. On the back of the single “I Hate Telling a Lie”, Stimela inked a label deal and released debut album Fire, Passion and Ecstacy (1982) which contained the seminal hit “Where Did We Go Wrong?”. It was the beginning of a string of platinum-selling albums, among them Shadows Fear and Pain, and audience-pleasing songs, like the explosive “Trouble in the Land of Plenty” and “Whispers in the Deep”, a memorable track off 1986’s Look, Listen and Decide, that was banned from radioplay by the apartheid authorities.
Phiri’s unique guitarwork and songwriting brought him to the atten-tion of American musician Paul Simon, who tapped him, along with bassist Bakithi Kumalo and drummer Mtshali, to be the core musi-cians on what would become Graceland. Although mired in contro-versy at the time of its recording – a contravention of the cultural boycott – the 1986 album is considered a classic and Phiri’s role in the still-influential sound is unmistakable. Arising out of the album’s recording, Phiri and Mtshali toured internationally with Simon be-tween 1987 and 1990, returning periodically to record with the Stimela.
Although not without its challenges to him personally (primarily re-garding songwriting credits) the Graceland period secured Phiri’s standing as a worldclass guitarist and a musician of extraordinary ability.
The past three decades since that defining musical moment have seen Phiri steadily add to his vast recording repertoire, with solo work, new Stimela albums (starting with 1996’s Out of the Ashes and including the multiple South African Music Award-winning 2010’s A Lifetime …), and collaborations (among them with Manu Dibango and the late Nana Coyote). From his Mpumulanga base, Phiri has played a role in the careers of more than a few emerging artists and remains a beloved cultural figure. Perhaps most importantly, his songwriting repertoire continues to ensure he’s both a social com-mentator and gentle educator, turning burning issues of the day into eminently listenable material that’s carries his signature combina-tion of fun and seriousness.
“It’s never been my objective to make commercial music but instead transform South African music into something respectable,” Phiri says of the enduring motivation behind his career. “In the end, it’s your art that remains when everything else has gone.”