“Songs as truthful as a dream/flow as steady as a stream/A stream of knowledge and of pain…”
If any words summed up the work of Raymond Chikapa Enoch Phiri, who died of lung cancer on Wednesday, aged 70, in his birthplace, Nelspruit, it was those. They come from the 1986 song he co-wrote with the Ashley Subel: Whispers in the Deep (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9QPjUkvvM) – a song that became one of the decade’s anthems of liberation, and lives still.
Phiri’s Malawi-born father, “Just Now” Phiri, was a guitarist, and that family history gives the lie to all the xenophobic myths that cringe before colonialist borders. Migrant workers just like ‘Just Now’ built the economy, and fattened capitalist profits with their sweat. But they also built South African culture and music through the sharing, swapping and inventing of ideas that took place in hostels, shebeens and backyards. The king of instruments for translating and re-visioning music, because of its idiomatic flexibility, was the guitar.
“Just Now” Phiri was more than a miner who player guitar, however. He staged touring puppet shows, and the young Raymond started dancing and playing guitar in that setting. His first guitar, as for many young South Africans in the 1950s, was an oilcan with wire strings stretched up a wooden handle. He got his first break on a bigger stage in 1962, aged 15, as a dancer for the legendary Dark City Sisters when they toured Mpumalanga. That and similar subsequent jobs earned him enough for a ticket to Joburg, to try his luck forming a band.
He arrived at the start of the era of the Soweto Soul movement, when dozens of young musical hopefuls were starting to don flares, platforms and shades to mix the feel of the American Motown and Stax labels with the roots idioms of South Africa in bands such as the In-Laws, the Beaters (later to become Harari), the Emeralds, the Flaming Souls and more. Phiri put together a particularly potent combination with Isaac Mtshali, son of a traditional healer, on drums: the Cannibals. The group soon won popularity and served as the rhythm section for recording stars such as the Mahotella Queens. However, in 1975 they were joined by perhaps the movement’s most compelling vocalist, Jacob Mpharanyana Radebe, whose passionate delivery stirred audiences all over the country (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoH8eD2m6FM ). Songs like My Maria and Highland Drifter (top of the Zimbabwe hit parade for 18 weeks but banned in South Africa) won them fans across southern Africa.
Mpharanyana worked with the Cannibals for nearly four years, until his death. According to music historian Steve Kwena Mokoena, the band “played a critical role in nurturing a spirit of self-pride and defiance.”
Meanwhile, in the band’s engine room, Phiri was developing a less flamboyant, more introspective and complex style, and thinking a lot about what music could do, and where it should go. He found the narrow language boxes of Radio Bantu and apartheid’s retribalisation policy irksome and oppressive. “They were censoring me,” he recalled, “not to write in a much larger medium where I could reach [all] communities.”
In 1980, the Cannibals toured the then Eastern Transvaal with the Movers (including bassist Jabu Sibumbe and keyboard player Lloyd Lelosa) and Stimela – although they didn’t settle on the name until much later, after several other unsuccessful labels, including Splash – was born. The name Stimela came from the train that took the band back to South Africa after a disastrous Mozambican tour that saw them stranded in Maputo for three months and selling almost everything – including a few instruments – to raise the fare home.
New artists (including Motijoane, organist Charlie Ndlovu and keyboardist Thapelo Kgomo) joined over time. Singles and albums, each more successful than the last, followed: the 1983 hit single I Hate Telling a Lie; Fire Passion and Ecstacy; Shadows Fear and Pain – and then Look, Listen and Decide in 1986, from which came that epoch-defining song: Whispers In The Deep (Phinda Mzala), as well as other powerful songs such as Sishovingolovane and Who’s Fooling Who? Despite the censors and the SABC regulations, Stimela continued to record defiantly in English and other languages, including Malawian Chichewa. “Most of us were ready to call a spade a spade, “ Phiri told the First World Congress on Music and Censorship in 1998.
He told the congress of one concert where Stimela had agreed not to sing Whisper in the Deep’s ‘inflammatory’ chorus, Phinda Mzala (Listen, cousin…). “I didn’t use it…the audience did. So I thought, if they sing, then they have to arrest everyone…Everybody sang along and that was the end of the show. They started shooting tear gas…We asked the people not to panic; not to throw any stones or things of that kind. The power of the music prevailed because they listened…They all walked out of the stadium and the police got mad because the people didn’t retaliate. The police started shooting innocent people with tear gas…but on that day, music won.”
Alongside this domestic career, Phiri toured to considerable critical acclaim with Paul Simon in both Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, and collaborated with American singer/songwriter Laurie Anderson on the album Strange Angels. Stimela recorded, in all, a score of albums and EPs, most recently the 2011 Turn on the Sun with guest Thandiswa Mazwai (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4iK0GVfFrs ).
For his services to South African music, Ray Phiri was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver. In later years, he toured South Africa and overseas as a solo artist and was given his own stage at jazz festivals to showcase an original instrumental vision that stretched from folk roots to out-there improvisation. He also founded the Ray Phiri Artists’ Institute, based at Thembeka High School in Ka Nyamazane in Mpumalanga, to identify and mentor young talent.
A mesmerising guitarist, thoughtful songwriter and articulate commentator on life, music and justice, Phiri leaves an unfillable gap in the South African music landscape. But it’s for that song, above all, that he is remembered: “Don’t be afraid/don’t whisper in the deep/speak out your mind.”
He always did, and perhaps the best way to honour his memory amid today’s silencings is to keep on doing it.