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Ray Phiri, the passing of a storyteller

July 17, 2017 4:00 AM
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The Stimela man did not come to sing, but there was a live band and a small crowd of really talented musicians around. There, also was the legendary guitarist John Selolwane. Later Ray and John kicked off a mini reminder of the Graceland Tour that the duo had with Paul Simon. Those who remembered the Graceland in Concert at Rufaro Stadium in 1987 grew nostalgic as the two guitarists from that epic tour gave us an intimate taste of the music they rocked Rufaro and the world with during the bloody years of the apartheid regime’s state of emergency. The Graceland Tour was controversial because initially both the apartheid and anti-apartheid activists disapproved it. It was held during the United Nations cultural boycott against South Africa and Paul Simon together with his 24 African member ensemble including one Motswana (John Selolwane) were seen as violators of the boycott. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Back at Megopong Hall in 2013, Ray Phiri took the microphone, not to sing, but to speak to the local musicians, promoters and music reporters. Other artists included Kapenta Katuta, Wynton Senwelo, Kabelo Tamukate, Shanti Lo, Nnunu Ramogotsi, Kearoma Rantao and Thulani Manana who is currently also battling cancer. There was Keletso Rakhudu who even though he was then a Cabinet minister, later jumped into the jam, now as Bra Kaiser on guitars and drums.

Phiri broke the ice with a short recital of Stimela's great classic, Who Is Fooling Who. The small crowd sang along as he did a short acappella while making his trademark cartoon-like dance moves; the moves he used to do with fellow Stimela vocalist Nana Coyote as they danced like caricatures of disabled men on stage. Bra John must have struck a chord in Phiri and brought the memories of Graceland because they delved deep into the performance.

But he became emotional when he talked about his love for music. One of the most heartfelt narrations was when he responded to questions about why he had chosen to defy the United Nations cultural embargo by playing with Paul Simon in the Graceland Tour.

Phiri spoke about the orders from the ANC asking him to stop entertaining South Africa because blacks were supposed to be in a cultural boycott as sanctioned by the United Nations.

Phiri spoke defiantly and from the heart, about the dilemma they had to face during the struggle for freedom as entertainers that were based inside South Africa, compared to those in exile.

He said the ANC top brass who fled the country issued orders from the comfort of free streets in London and Lusaka and wanted to order around those who were trapped inside the belly of the apartheid beast in South Africa without recognising their dilemma. He said while those in exile lived their lives on donor funds in rich western neighbourhoods, the artists in South Africa were part of the foot soldiers, with microphones as guns against the oppressive regime. Phiri explained that they had to defy ANC and continue to entertain in South Africa.

If Phiri had cowed to the ANC orders of boycotting Graceland, perhaps Paul Simon would have failed to achieve the magic at Rufaro Soccer Stadium. I was not at Rufaro Stadium on that Valentine’s Day in 1987 (that is one festival I wish I could have been at) but the magic, as we still see from the Youtube videos, was surreal. The black and white people in the height of racial divide in South Africa gyrating together in a mass of ecstatic euphoria at one of Africa’s most historic concert.

Even this night, July 12, attempting to write this, while also watching the Rufaro Stadium videos as Ray Phiri hits that lead guitar on Township Jive and kicks on his comic dances, and flashes infectious smiles while strumming the giutar strings, I am conscious of the loss but I am thankful for the musical memories Phiri left for us. Rest in peace Bra Ray.


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