Graceland guitarist Phiri used music to fight apartheid

Ray Phiri
Ray Phiri

NEW YORK • Ray Phiri, the South African guitarist who reached an international audience backing Paul Simon on the albums Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints, and who founded Stimela, a widely acclaimed, long-running band that confronted apartheid, died last Wednesday at a clinic in Nelspruit, South Africa. He was 70.

Mr Paul Nkanyane, a friend and spokesman, announced the death and said the cause was lung cancer.

The African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party, said: "Phiri was a voice for the voiceless and a legend of our time. An immensely gifted composer, vocalist and guitarist, he breathed consciousness and agitated thoughts of freedom through his music."

Phiri's guitar-playing held echoes of African traditions, full of percussive subtleties and springy rhythms, which he merged with a fluent understanding of soul and funk and delivered with a warm, rounded tone.

He sang in English and also in South African languages with an earnest sense of urgency, while his lyrics recognised adversity and called for love, determination, honesty and unity.

Raymond Chikapa Enock Phiri was born on March 23, 1947, in what was then called the Eastern Transvaal of South Africa. He grew up near Nelspruit, an agricultural area in what is now Mpumalanga province.

His stepfather, who was from Malawi, played the guitar, but gave it up after losing three fingers in an accident. Phiri took that guitar and largely taught himself to play.

He moved to Johannesburg in 1967 to work as a musician.

Stimela grew out of a soul band he founded in the 1970s, Cannibals, which had a string of hit singles in South Africa. In the early 1980s, Phiri and members of Cannibals formed Stimela (the name means "steam train"). He led the group, wrote songs, played guitar and often sang lead vocals.

Stimela merged the flexibility of jazz and the sleekness of R&B with the buoyant rhythms of South African styles such as mbaqanga. Its songs also recognised the tensions of living under apartheid.

With its debut album, Fire, Passion, Ecstasy, released in 1984, Stimela began a three-decade career as a top South African band.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Stimela's music came up at times against the limits of what could be publicly expressed under apartheid. Some of its songs were banned from broadcast on the state-controlled radio station, SABC, notably Whispers In The Deep, which urged: "Speak your mind/Don't be afraid." Despite the radio ban, the 1986 album containing that song, Look, Listen And Decide, became a bestseller.

Where Did We Go Wrong, a 1984 duet with a white singer, Katie Pennington, was also refused radio play.

Simon recorded Graceland in 1985 and 1986, working on most of its songs with African musicians in Johannesburg and New York City. Phiri and two members of Stimela backed Simon on Crazy Love, Vol. II, and Phiri was part of a South African rhythm section that Simon brought to New York for further recording. He played guitar on the album's title track and on Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, and was credited as both guitarist and co-arranger on You Can Call Me Al, Under African Skies and Crazy Love, Vol. II.

Simon paid tribute to Phiri on his website: "He was a beautiful, masterful guitarist and an inventive musician. He will be remembered as a patriot who used his music to fight apartheid and brought that message to the world."

"For me, music is the closest thing to religion," Phiri said in Under African Skies, a 2011 documentary about the making of Graceland. "And if it's utilised in the right way, it can inform and bring people closer, and they can find solutions to their problems."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Graceland guitarist Phiri used music to fight apartheid'. Print Edition | Subscribe