Wisdom and shamanic beauty

The legendary bandleader, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Mr Ray Chikapa Phiri is no more. As he is remembered today at a memorial in his hometown of Neilspruit and will be laid to rest this weekend, our editor MR SIPHIWE MPYE remembers a wise master of metaphor and melody.     

I marveled silently at the lush, rolling hilltop greenery beyond the window I stood at, wondering just how I had wound up there in the white, airy, open plan thatch roof house on a suburban Neispruit hill. In the background, music wafted a notch or two below the chatty voices and intermittent laughter from a group of record label executives from the now long defunct Primedia Music. This was the erstwhile sonic imprint of the giant media group that had poached some of the most visible execs up for grabs from the multinational majors at the time, who in turn had signed some topical acts – among them Kabelo, Magesh, Speedy and Danny K. The media fell in love with them as much as they did their artists. The label’s oldest and most accomplished industry smash and grab was our host, Ray Chikapa Phiri.
As the conversation became increasingly animated, Phiri toiled away quietly in his kitchen, cooking us a hearty Sunday meal, after a weekend of music, drink and far too to little sleep. He had launched the album the previous night, in familiar surroundings, with a legion of old and new fans in the audience, with which he patiently interacted after the show. I also got in about 20 minutes with him, a time he used to share tales about his early days, learning to play the guitar and deeply personal reflections on his stepfather’s influence, with characteristic vulnerability and a touch of measured, infectous, shamanic, madness. He spoke of his regular journey from Mpumalanga to Gauteng, and how as soon as he would see Johannesburg in the distant horizon a heaviness would descend, and anxiety would set in. Jozi, as breakneck and free as it is, its also a bitch of a place tolerate. Meditation, music and reading were the only remedies, he explained. He was a clear and thoughtful communicator, yet incurably metaphoric, a joy to behold in an industry flooded by vapid fast talkers.

 

“He shared tales about his early days, learning to play the guitar and deeply personal reflections on his stepfather’s influence, with characteristic vulnerability and a touch of measured, infectous, shamanic, madness.”

 

I was a young music writer then, chasing gigs and hangovers around the country, and this weekend, my quest had led me to a giant’s house for an exclusive interview. Inexplicably, he had requested me by name, his handlers had explained. Later, as we sat down for a formal chat, the voracious reader explained that he had followed my career ever since I tore apart an under par album from an otherwise exceptional artist, eighteen months prior. I had been a fan of Stimela since my dad introduced me to them in the 80s and there I was, decades later, sitting in front of the man that was emblematic of their musicality, lyricism and activism, and he was telling me that he was a fan. If my memory serves me, I struggled to write that profile, the thought of heightened expectation and inevitable critique from an formidable subject weighing heavily on my young shoulders.
Over the ensuing years I would see him occasionally and he would consistently show me tremendous generosity with his time, wisdom and the occasional book recommendation. I also interview him periodically for print and a little show I had on community radio. In 2010, I was honoured to write the official Stimela biography when the band reunited for a new album, A lifetime, their first in 15 years. I had struggled to lock him down for an interview and eventually, arrested an hour on the phone, while he prepared to check out of a Maputo hotel room. Again, his generosity overflowed, centering the healing process that the recording process had become for him and his Stimela brothers. They had locked themselves in a house, with all their equipment and residual angst from the kinds of things that can go unsaid between brothers over decades. A psychologist was enlisted to facilitate this necessary snake stomping.

“I had been a fan of Stimela since my dad introduced me to them in the 80s and there I was, decades later, sitting in front of the man that was emblematic of their musicality, lyricism and activism, and he was telling me that he was a fan.”

While at the time we had already hosted a succesful World Cup and were still under “Philllip’s” misleading unity spell, the discourse in the country concerned him, as it had always done for the cultural and socio-political emisaries of song. His concern for our direction may have seemed alarmist in a year we shattered all the odds, but time has ushered in a chilling vindication.
He also took time to deviate, painting dreamy Mozambican travel scapes, and its spiritual parallels with an album rich with an intergenerational mix that included the late Mr Nana Coyote, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the late Ms. Puff Johnson, Ms. Thandiswa Mazwai and Black Coffe on a remix. A lifetime, I wrote at the time, was “unmistakably nostalgic, yet steeped in a modernity”, begging for new ears. He was always seeking and relevant. In recent years, at his advanced age, he had embraced fatherhood once again, and reinforced his connection with the elements, his body and what he put in it. One needs to concede however, that his long relationship with cigarrettes may have been the gateway to the lung cancer that finally claimed him. This year, at the age of 70, he had begun touring again, with a local and international schedule that a 25 year-old would struggle with. For now though, he rests. 
We have lost a masterful guitarist, raucous dancer, dextrous songwriter and under appreciated intellectual.
Rest well Bra Ray, we will always remember.

A version of this tribute was first published in the Mail & Guardian.
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