Legendary South African jazz musician and Stimela founder and frontman, Raymond Chikapa Enock Phiri, has died at the age of 70 after succumbing to lung cancer.
Popularly known in music circles as Ray Phiri, the songwriter, lead vocalist and guitarist lost the battle to lung cancer this morning (12 July 2017) at a hospital in Mbombela (Nelspruit) in the Mphumalanga province of South Africa.
Born in Mbombela on 23 March 1947, Phiri’s passion for music was inspired by his late father, Kanyama Phiri, a Malawi migrant worker who used to play the guitar. This saw the young Ray learning to play the guitar at a tender age.
He later learnt to play the piano as well as drums.
In 1962, Ray got an opportunity to dance for the Dark City Sisters when they toured Mphumalanga. The tour raised enough money to finance Phiri’s dream of travelling to Johannesburg where he later founded a soul music group, The Cannibals in the 1970s.
However, the group was later disbanded leading to Ray forming another group, Stimela which means the steam train, a group that he led until his untimely death.
The “Phinda mzala” (Whispers In The Deep) hit-maker became a household name in the music fraternity in the Southern African region commanding a massive following in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho, among others.
His fame even transcended the African continent when, in 1985, he teamed up with American musician, Paul Simon, on an eight-month tour called Graceland Anniversary Tour. The aim of the tour was to drum up support for the liberation struggle and better living conditions for African states that were still colonised.
The late musician was also part of the Frenchement Zoulou tour of France which featured the likes of the late reggae legend, Lucky Dube, Grammy-award winning group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South African songstress and African legend and Yvonne “Mama Africa” Chaka Chaka.
Phiri, whose music was a fusion of traditional mbaqanga, jazz and reggae, received numerous accolades with the highlight being on 27 April 2011 when President Jacob Zuma handed him the Order of Ikamamnga in Silver for his “sterling contribution to the South African music industry and the successful use of Arts as an instrument of social transformation”.
Under Ray, Stimela managed to churn out such Gold and Platinum status albums as “People Don’t Talk, So Let’s Talk”, Fire, Passion and Ecstacy (1991), Look, Listen and Decide (1992).
Phiri was also a victim of several car accidents one of which claimed the life of his wife, Daphney, in 2003 while six of his band members perished in another in 1987 which left him badly injured.
At the time of his death, Ray Phiri had established an arts institute, the Ray Phiri Artists Institute at Thembeka High School in Ka Nyamazane just outside Mbombela.
He is survived by eight children, three sons and five daughters.
Ray Phiri’s Discography
– 1982: Fire, Passion And Ecstasy
– 1983: Rewind
– 1985: Shadows, Fear And Pain
– 1986: Look, Listen And Decide
– 1987: Unfinished Story
– 1989: Trouble In The Land Of Plenty
– 1996: Out Of The Ashes
– 2000: Steam Tracks (Best of)
– 2001: Live At The Market Theatre – 1st Half (Live)
– 2002: The 2nd Half (Live)
– 2010: A Lifetime…
– 2011: Turn On The Sun