Phiri strummed his way into history



JOHANNESBURG — South African music legend and former Stimela frontman Ray Phiri died in a Mpumalanga hospital this morning after a battle with lung cancer.

Here we flashback to a 2015 interview in which Phiri tells Johnny Masilela about his early days in Joburg and the formation of his first band, the Cannibals:

Music legend Ray Chikapa Phiri could easily ramble on about how he performed at the most prestigious concerts around the world.

The left-handed Phiri, who strummed the guitar alongside internationally acclaimed Paul Simon during the Graceland Tour, could settle for one of the best restaurants in the leafy northern suburbs of Joburg and treat himself to the best cuisine.

But during a recent interview with him, he did the opposite, choosing the modest but fine Niki’s Jazz Restaurant in the culture-rich Market Theatre Precinct in Newtown, downtown Joburg.

The interview was delayed by three hours because Phiri got tangled up with personal commitments on the way from his hometown of Mbombela in Mpumalanga.

For the “inconvenience” caused to yours truly and retired teacher Jappie “Mojapane” Sejeng, Phiri declared us his lunchtime guests and paid for the African cuisine out of his own pocket. Bon appetit!

Indeed, during the interview, Bra Ray did not reminisce about “been to” New York, Paris or London, but traced the humble journey he travelled from a family compound in the timber farmlands of the former Nelspruit, now Mbombela.

“My father played the guitar, with a male and female puppet attached to the instrument dancing along,”he said.

“For the fun of it, I mimicked the puppets and joined in the dancing.”

The signature puppet dance has become a popular part of his band Stimela’s repertoire, drawing shrieks and whistles from audiences such as those at the recent Joy of Jazz Festival in Joburg.

Phiri’s Malawi-born father, a man named Justnow, refused to allow his son to play the guitar on the pretext that, as a kid, he would break the strings.

How ironic then that the interview took place hardly a week after the Joy of Jazz Festival, where he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as he played the night away.

“One day, while my father was away, I stole his guitar and fiddled with it. In the process I broke one of the strings. This got Justnow hot under the collar, wanting to know what the heck I was doing with his guitar. I survived a spanking by lying that I was cleaning the instrument,” Phiri explained.

Justnow, his dancing son and the puppets became popular at weddings and other compound community festivities.

The first time Phiri got full access to his father’s treasured guitar was after Justnow lost three fingers in a freak accident at work.

Phiri – who earned pocket money as an after-school gardener, walking 5km into Mbombela – spent a few shillings on a “picture chord book” to help him understand the workings of the guitar.

He also made a little money dancing for a local band where his elder sisters, Maria and Girlie, were the songstresses.

“I did not want other band members to know I was privately learning how to play the guitar. It was a confidence thing, and also that I improvised on country and western ballads when locals were into the mbaqanga dialect,” he said.

The passion for country music, Phiri explained, was inspired by the one-time great LM Radio, which featured yesteryear artists such as Jim Reeves and Elvis Presley.

In 1967, the then very popular Joburg-based Dark City Sisters and the back-up Five Boys Band were invited to perform at an agricultural show in Mbombela.

“I broke away from the cheering crowd and went on stage to dance, drawing deafening applause from those in attendance. The popular ensemble from Johannesburg paid me R35 and recruited me to travel with them back to the City of Gold.”

There and then Phiri left with the Dark City Sisters and the Five Boys – ending up stranded in downtown Joburg and spending three nights sleeping on the pavements.

Luckily he was able to make contact with Modderbee Prison warder and homeboy Lukas Ndlovu, who welcomed him into his room in Daveyton on the East Rand, on the understanding Phiri did chores like cooking and cleaning.

In Niki’s Jazz Restaurant in the Market Theatre precinct, Phiri stabbed his knife into his plate of pap and boiled offal and declared: “By the way, I am a good cook.”

Ndlovu arranged for a job interview for Phiri at Modderbee Prison.

“An Afrikaner officer pulled out a measuring tape and ordered me to stretch my rather small arms and legs. He winked at me and said I’d got the job, but could only start after 10 years! I think he was right because the prisoners would have poked fun at one so small, dressed in a warder’s uniform,” Phiri said with a bellyful of laughter.

He got a job on a construction site in Sandton, where he pushed around mortar in a wheelbarrow.

In later years, the construction site gave birth to the popular Stimela track, Si shovi ’ngolovana (We are pushing the wheelbarrow), although Phiri added that the song was also used as a rallying call to push back “the frontiers of apartheid”.

“I was happy there because I got my own room, if you can call a toolshed packed with bags of cement and shovels a home!” he said.

Three years after leaving home, he had saved enough money to buy a steam-train ticket to Mbombela for the Easter weekend.

He arrived at the Joburg station just as the train was slowly chugging away. Phiri, now a streetwise Joburger, ran alongside and leapt onto a carriage – but also into the arms of a railway policeman, who handcuffed him and got him locked up at a police station at the next train station.

After four days he was hauled before a magistrate, who paged through his dompas, which Phiri said revealed his Mbombela origins.

The magistrate found him guilty of being an illegal visitor to Joburg and sentenced him to be escorted by a policeman back to Mbombela, in terms of the “orderly movement” of non-white persons.

In Mbombela, Phiri teamed up with an all-instrument band called Amazim-zim, which legendary producer West Nkosi invited to a recording session in Joburg.

Phiri said Nkosi required the band to change its name because mbaqanga king Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde was releasing a record by the same name.

“I suggested we translate our name into English and we became the Cannibals,” Phiri said.

The change of name nudged Nkosi to bring in a popular vocalist known as “Mpharanyana” – hence to many old-school township music lovers, there would be fond memories of Mpharanyana and the Cannibals.

The more successful present-day Stimela emerged from a merger between the Cannibals and what Phiri described as the “new generation” of the Movers.

In recent years he has taken a nostalgic journey back to the timber plantations of Mpumalanga. There he rents a house from the Solomons family, who have given him permission to reinvent his alma mater, building it into the Ray Phiri Arts Institute.

No less than Paul Simon paid a courtesy visit in 2012, as part of the making of a documentary commemorating 25 years of what has become the all-time classic, Graceland. — The Sunday Independent



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