“We go wrong when we undermine our own cultures and languages”
“I enjoy people saying I am a has-been; you will die trying to be where I have been”
“We, Stimela, don’t and didn’t need no bodyguards because we are telling the truth… now you have trouble in the land of plenty” – Ray Phiri
The Southern African Music Rights Organisation NPC (SAMRO) joins the nation in mourning the passing of legendary musician Ray Phiri. Affectionately known as Chikapa, Phiri was a member of SAMRO for 41 years. He joined the royalty collecting society on 1 April 1976.
Phiri (70) was a prolific producer, composer, guitarist and songwriter that saw him benefit from royalties through his SAMRO membership.
Seemingly an artist from a bygone era, he remained relevant, he and his band were a highlight of the recently formed IGODA touring circuit, playing shows at the Azgo Festival in Maputo, the Bassline Africa Day in Johannesburg, the Zakifo Festival in Durban and the Sakifo Festival on Réunion Island.
The iconic jazz, fusion and mbaqanga musician and Stimela frontman fell ill after returning from Réunion, but had been expected to make a full recovery.
SAMRO Foundation Managing Director André le Roux recalled of the late, great jazz musician: “He understood the business of music and composition better than most. In March this year, he was on the panel of the SAMRO CEO Forum in his home province of Mpumalanga, hosted by our chairman, the Reverend Abe Sibiya. He regaled delegates, panellists and fellow artists with his words of wisdom, his insights into the music business and his advice on how to sound distinctive as an African composer, interspersed with some singing and dancing.”
“He belted out songs from Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin, while speaking about being true to yourself as an artist and being unique, in the same way that Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Stimela and Freshlyground sounded South African, African and unique.”
Le Roux said Phiri spoke at length about the importance of songwriters to the country. He said at the forum: “We need songwriters. Songwriters communicate what the song is all about; the choice of notes is very important. We must invest in songwriting. The human voice is the best instrument: the choice of words, simplicity of rhythm and sweetness of singer.” He emphasised “…don’t sound like other people, find your own voice.”
Jokingly, he stated that “the secret to success [is] practice, practice practice… and be a friend of Ray Phiri, and you will get somewhere.”
Le Roux said Phiri was vocal about South African musicians taking pride in their culture and their uniquely South African identity. He said at the forum: “Why do we send our money abroad and not foster our own music? We go wrong when we undermine our own cultures and languages.”
Perhaps prophetically, he told his fellow music creators: “I enjoy people saying I am a has-been; you will die trying to be where I have been.”
He said of the fame he achieved with Stimela, with whom he released gold- and platinum-selling albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstasy, Look, Listen and Decideas well as People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk: “We, Stimela, don’t and didn’t need no bodyguards because we are telling the truth… now you have trouble in the land of plenty.”
SAMRO’s CEO, Nothando Migogo, expressed her personal sadness at the sudden death of the musician. “Ray Phiri was a legend. He was an internationally acclaimed musician, cultural activist, composer and a true icon of our time, and as an organisation we mourn his passing.
“His music was a soundtrack of an era, loved by all South Africans transcending colour and creed. I grew up listening to his music because of my father’s fondness of him. Stimela and Ray Phiri were a constant at any family gathering. He was also extremely instrumental in the development of the proudly South African sound and he often shared his wisdom and experience of the industry with those willing to learn from him.”
Phiri’s unique guitarwork and songwriting brought him to the attention of American musician Paul Simon, who tapped him, along with bassist Bakithi Kumalo and drummer Isaac Mtshali, to be the core musicians on what would become the Graceland album. Phiri and Mtshali toured internationally with Simon between 1987 and 1990, helping to mobilise support for the struggle for liberation and promoting cross-cultural dialogue. As the heartbeat of the Graceland project, Phiri’s standing as a world-class guitarist and a musician of extraordinary ability was secured, and he earned a Grammy Award for his participation.
In 2011, Phiri received the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver from President Jacob Zuma for his sterling contribution to the South African music industry and the successful use of the arts as an instrument of social transformation. He founded the Ray Phiri Artists Institute, which focuses on unearthing and promoting music talent in Mpumalanga.
SAMRO offers its condolences to the family, friends and fans of Ray Phiri.
For further enquiries, kindly contact: The official spokesperson for the family is Paul Nkanyane on 082 492 8327.
SAMRO General Manager: Marketing and Communications
Office line: 011 712 8506
Mobile: 076 402 2704