Singer, guitar maestro and Stimela frontman Ray Chikapa Phiri has ascended.
I say ascended because a few weeks ago, chatting to my father, I slip up and say the word ‘dead’ instead of the more politically-correct term ‘passed away’. My father quickly corrects me and says “…death is simply rest for the body, and continuous existence for umoya. Spirits don’t die.” And so, when I hear the news of Bab’ Ray’s ascension, I am sad because he is no longer here with us… but I’m also strangely comforted because I know in music and beyond, his spirit is still alive.
From Daveyton to Orlando, like Brasso, amakipkip and “summertime” on Spring day, Stimela, with the accompaniment of Ray Phiri’s luxuriously raspy voice, are engrained in the soundtrack and makeup of black South African life. It is “an echo of all townships,” as the illustrator, art director and designer Lazi Mathebula puts it.
Founded in the 1970s, and known originally as The Cannibals, it was after a being stranded in Maputo for three months and selling their belongings for a train ticket home that the band changed their name. With the change in name also came the addition of new band members, Charlie “Sam” Ndlovu, Nana Coyote, Thapelo Kgomo and Ntokozo Zungu.
The Afro-fusion band wrote songs speaking out against the injustices and effects of the apartheid system, which saw their songs being banned by the SABC. Yet despite the national broadcaster’s attempts at silencing the groovy and soulful group, Stimela and Phiri became household sensations that went on to produce gold and platinum-selling albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstasy and Look, Listen and Decide – defining a new sound and offering a sense of healing for the state of blackness in pre- and post democratic South Africa.
Ray Phiri at Zakifo Festival | Image by Niamh Walsh-Vorster
After playing at the Birchwood Hotel in the Music Academy of Gauteng Big Band, founded by acclaimed trumpeter Johnny Mekoa (a legend and light that we also recently lost last week) Portia Sibiya was spotted by Ray Phiri.
“He called, and without introducing himself, simply said: ‘I have an offer you can’t refuse’.” Upon realising who she was speaking to, Portia truly could not refuse Bra Ray’s offer – to be the first female and youngest member of Stimela at just 24 years of age.
Spirited, energetic and looking much younger than his 70 years of age, Ray Phiri was a philosopher and an intellectual who was not only young at heart, but was also a nurturer and mentor for young talent.
“As bubbly as he was, he had a seriousness to him. He could be energetic and bubbly but also revealing and teaching you things at the same time.” Sibiya says.
Describing his personality, she also remarks on Phiri’s love for cooking and humility.
“He didn’t realise the magnitude of his impact. Whenever someone was happy to see him, he thought it was probably because of a recent TV or radio interview, but not because he was a legend. For me, Bra Ray was the President of Music, he taught me so much.”
A master-composer, songwriter, healer, teacher and reflector of the times, Ray Enoch Chikapa Phiri is immortalised in song and every memory.