Catching up with Ray Phiri

2017-05-21 10:30

This interview with Ray appeared in City Press on 21 May 2017. Phiri passed away this week after being diagnosed with lung cancer. This was one of his final interviews.

Johannesburg - In case you didn’t know this, kids, here’s a little history lesson for you: Ray Phiri is a legend.

He’s a South African jazz, fusion and mbaqanga musician who was born in Mpumalanga in 1947. He became a founding member of the Cannibals in the 70s. Later, the Cannibals would grow in size and rename themselves, becoming the hugely influential Afro-fusion band Stimela.

According to Wikipedia: “They changed their name to Stimela after a life-changing experience in Mozambique, when they were stranded in Maputo for three months. They had to sell all their belongings to pay for a train home. This trip was a watershed moment as it was where they conceived the new name for the band: the word ‘train’ is translated as ‘stimela’ in Nguni languages.”

Of course, real Ray-heads already know all this, but it’s just a reminder that Phiri has been setting Maputo alight for a while, and will do so again at the Azgo Festival this weekend.

This soft-spoken and wise man chatted to #Trending about how music still moves him at the age of 70.

“Music is spiritual. It provides healing and reflection, and it should add value. Emotion should shine through, and a healthy respect for the audience is required,” Phiri says.

He is aware that he has to nurture young talent, which is why the band he performs with now is young and vibrant.

“I enjoy playing and listening to music with youngsters. How does one empower if you don’t encourage?”

Bab’ Ray believes that “the process of recording should be based on performance, not ego”.

When asked what he thinks about the music that dominates the airwaves these days, he’s philosophical.

“Every generation has a sound of their own. Within this, there is music for the body, the mind and the soul.”

Phiri’s daughter, Nonku, a burgeoning musician, fashion designer and rapper, will share the bill with him at Azgo.

When asked when we should expect a collaboration from the two, bab’ Ray swells with pride and says: “It will happen in time, it shouldn’t be contrived.

“I am very proud of her work ... I’m even scared to watch her videos on YouTube – I see her and wish I could do that. I cry when I see her work – tears of celebration – she’s crazy that one. Just like her daddy.”

Bab’ Ray is also on the line-up for the Zakifo Music Festival in Durban this month and is excited about the idea of being around new talent, but goes on to explain how the country could do with more venues for performances.

“Festivals are good – they destress you; you can let your hair down and enjoy some music,” he says.
But festivals provide a ready audience – people have already decided to go to them and participate in the event, and so are a captive audience.

“What we really need is more places in the country to showcase local acts. Theatres and clubs are different to festivals because you’re saying to the artist, hit me with your best shot.”

In the clubs and community halls, he says, the artist must work harder to keep the crowd interested.

Phiri has created a reputation that few musicians can match, however, this does not faze the humble icon.

“Legends are just human, they can make mistakes, like singing a verse where the chorus is supposed to be,” he jokes.

“On stage, I feel big. I give it everything I have as I don’t take my audiences for granted. It’s like a high being on stage – one I only come down from a few hours after I have performed.”

He tells me he still feels as though he hasn’t made it yet, and that there are still songs to write.

*Zakifo takes place at the Blue Lagoon Beach, Durban. Tickets are R250 to R700 at

(Photos: Kent Andreasen)

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