Stimela’s ‘Singajindi Majita’ was a call to arms
To survive apartheid and indeed any other oppressive regimes across the world, creative musicians went deeper into metaphor and imagery.
This made it easier for groups such as Stimela to evade scrutiny from the apartheid South African regime because on the surface, the song was just a song but deeper, it was a hard-hitting revolutionary tune about the people’s troubles at the hands of the oppressive regime.
Most of their songs depict lovers yearning for a reunion as well as the desire to work together as a people and not as races.
Led by Ray Phiri, most of Stimela’s songs were profound and enthralling. There is one song ‘Whispers in the Deep’, which clearly demonstrates how revolutionary Phiri and his group were.
Off the group’s 1986 album ‘Look, Listen and Decide’, ‘Whispers in the Deep’ is an angry and sad song, which rips into the minds and souls of both the oppressed and the oppressor.
The song vividly captures both the physical and spiritual deprivation gnawing at the land and its people. It urges the fearful, the silent one not to whisper any more but to speak their minds.
“Ungahlebi,” the song says, “speak out your mind. Don’t be afraid, don’t whisper in the deep. Speak out your mind, stand up.”
It further says although it’s a whisper from the soul, it echoes throughout the land but when it reaches out for a hand “finds an amputated stump”.
The beautiful lyrics also speak of reconciliation and the unity of all the races, the oppressed and the oppressor.
“We’re all tributaries of this great river of pain/ Flowing into one ocean/ There’s only one motion/ All our pains flow into it/ But it did spill over/ Spill over the waters of love/ Into a great nation of love/ Before we recognise that all the oceans are one.”
As expected, ‘Whispers in the Deep’ was banned in South Africa.
In another song, ‘Singajindi Majita’, whose message was masked as a love song but, in fact, it was about the love for his motherland, South Africa.
‘Singajindi majita’ means don’t give up guys.
Although the message was discreetly hidden, the title alone meant a lot to people who went on to take up arms.
One of the group’s earliest songs, ‘Highland Drifter’, was a great hit in the then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where the war of liberation had picked up greatly but was banned in South Africa. This popularity showed that liberation songs can be accepted elsewhere as long as they speak about the people’s aspirations.
In recognition of Phiri’s contribution to the fight against apartheid, South African president Jacob Zuma awarded him The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver.
The Ikhamanga is a flower which is also known as crane bird of paradise or strelitzia found in South Africa especially in the Eastern Cape.
The order is reserved for South African individuals who excel in journalism, the arts, literature, culture and sports.
A statement from President Zuma’s office said: “We are proud to honour Mr Ray Chikapa Phiri with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his sterling contribution to the South African music industry and the successful use of arts as an instrument of social transformation.”
Born in 1947 in Mpumalanga, Phiri was inspired by his father, Kanyama, to play a variety of music instruments when he was young before becoming a dancer for the Dark City Sisters in his home town.
In the early 60s, Phiri trekked to Johannesburg where he founded the Cannibals and later Stimela which backed him in the release of albums such as ‘Fire, Passion and Ecstasy’; ‘Look, Listen and Decide’ and ‘People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk’.
A statement from President Zuma’s Office described Phiri’s songs as “a silent revolution; nothing less than inspiring”. “Fifteen years before the advent of democracy in South Africa, when fellow citizens could finally air their views, creatively, Mr Phiri had charted that path, becoming one of the voices of the oppressed and downtrodden,” the statement further said.
About the song ‘Singajindi Majita’, the Presidency noted that Phiri’s call for not giving up was a “message that nestled comfortably with the political conditions of the time”.
“The impact was more mobilisation of a people hungry for freedom, with songs providing courage and hope for the future. It is the silent voices of the oppressed and pressures by the oppressor that Mr Phiri most expressed in his contribution to the attainment of a democratic South Africa,” the statement said.
To cap up his long revolutionary stint, Phiri today runs the Ray Phiri Artists Institute in Mpumalanga, which helps the youth to realise their musical talents.