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Ray Chikapa Phiri, the musical legend

Date: Jul 13, 2017

On July 11, 2017, South Africa and the world of the sad passing of legendary Jazz musician, Ray Phiri, who succumbed to lung cancer.

Chikapa, as he was affectionately known, was admitted to a Nelspruit hospital where, during his admission, asked that his privacy be respected. The Mbombela-born artist died at the age of 70.

Phiri was a South African guitarist and vocalist. His style of music could best be described as mbaqanga and afro-jazz fusion. He was the lead member of the afro-fusion band, Stimela.

In April 2011, President Jacob Zuma conferred Phiri with the Order of the Ikhamanga in Silver for 'excellent achievement in the field of music and his contribution to the struggle against apartheid'.

Phiri is understood to have started playing the guitar at a young age. Growing up, the young Phiri was surrounded by musical instruments such as the piano and drums. He was inspired by his late father, Kanyama Phiri, to take up music.

Phiri had his lucky break when he danced for the Dark City Sisters. From that gig, he saved-up enough money to travel to Johannesburg. He was the founder-member of the Cannibals, a 1970s soul music group which later disbanded and Phiri went on to start Stimela, meaning ‘the train’ in seSotho.

The group went on to successfully produce gold and platinum-winning albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstasy (1991), Look, Listen and Decide(1992), as well as the controversial People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk.

According to Sahistory.org.za,  some of Stimela's tracks, including Whispers in the Deep and Phinda Mzala, were restricted by the old SABC. This did not have the desired effect as it resulted in the group's popularity soaring.

Phiri joined Paul Simon on his Graceland Project and he went on to be his main guitarist over a number of years. He toured with Simon on four of the following tours: 'Event of a lifetime', 'Born at the right time', Graceland (1987) and Graceland (1989). He has featured in two of his albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints.

The Gracelandtours were Simon's way of getting audiences across the United States to understand what apartheid was about, thus mobilising support for South Africa's struggle for liberation.

A November 2003 car accident claimed the life of Phiri’s wife, Mapule, and left him critically injured. The musician was reportedly behind the wheel, traveling on a gravel road at high speed, when he lost control of his car causing it to overturn.

Lindelani Mathonsi, Larry Myatha and a baby girl, Lenhle, believed to be Phiri's daughter, were also in the car.

At the time of his passing, Phiri was still actively involved in the arts and development, especially around his home province, Mpumalanga. He is the founder of the Ray Phiri Artists Institute, based at Thembeka High School in Ka Nyamaze in Mbombela.

He was also the Chairperson of the Mpumalanga Arts Council.

Following news of his passing, tributes poured in for Phiri from all walks f life. Locally, the Presidency, political parties as well his fellow musicians sent their tributes for the late Grammy award winner, a well-decorated artist who lives a rich musical legacy behind. – Edited by Tshepo Tsheole

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