A legend is lost – Ray Phiri loses battle with cancer

By Thandisizwe Mgudlwa

CAPE TOWN – The global music fraternity bids farewell to one of South Africa’s finest sons, Raymond Chikapa Enock Phiri. He was 70.

Bra Ray, was a South African jazz, fusion and mbaqanga music legend. Ray Phiri, as he was popularly known across the globe, died after a two-month battle with lung cancer.

Also a guitarist, producer and vocalist Bra Ray rose to fame when he featured on Paul Simon’s Graceland album in 1986.

H e wa s admitted to hospital two weeks ago and died in the early hours of Wednesday morning, July 12. Family spokesp e r s on Pau l Nkanyane said Ray Phiri was surrounded by friends and relatives at the clinic, in the north-eastern city of Nelspruit.

In an interview with The Sowetan newspaper earlier this month, Phiri said: “Let me suffer (in peace with my) pain, on my own with my dignity.”

Bra Ray became a founding member of the Cannibals in the 1970s.

When the Cannibals disbanded, Phiri then founded Stimela (train), with whom he conceived gold and platinum-selling albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstacy (1991), Look, Listen and Decide (1992) as well as the controversial People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk.

Ray Phiri was born near Nelspruit in the then Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumalanga Province, in South Africa on March 23, 1947.

His big break came in 1985 when Paul Simon asked him along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo to join his Graceland project. The project was such a successful and it also helped the South African musicians to make names for themselves on the global stage.

This led to Bra Ray to collaborate with Paul Simon again on Simon’s ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ album, which saw him perform on stages such as Central Park and Madison Square Garden as well as appearing on top television shows in the United States.

And in 2012, Paul Simon organised a Graceland anniversary tour which Bra Ray participated in. Bra Ray has been involved in a series of car accidents. These accidents have had an impact on his personal life and musical career.

Bra Ray was badly injured in 1987 in a crash that claimed the lives of his band manager and six others. In 2003, his wife was killed in a car accident, and Bra Ray escaped the accident with a serious injury.

Phiri received many awards in recognition for his contribution in the music industry, one of these is the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver awarded to him by the South African president. This was to honor his sterling contribution to the South African music industry and the successful use of arts as an instrument of social transformation.

His band Stimela is the dominant group in its field. The band was formed when Ray Phiri got together with drummer Isaac Mtshali, Thabo Lloyd Lelosa and Jabu Sibumbe, and they initially called themselves the Cannibals.

The band started out as instrumentalists, but it later evolved to Afro-fusion when they joined forces with vocalist Jacob “Mparanyana” Radebe in 1975. They continued to work together for four years. The band kept going after Radebe died in 1978. They were later joined by the iconic Nana Coyote from Lesotho. 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 manage to afford a train home. This trip will go down as a watershed moment as it was where they conceived the new name for the band, train, which is translated as Stimela in Nguni languages.

Their discography includes, 1982: Fire, Passion And Ecstasy; 1983: Rewind; 1985: Shadows, Fear And Pain; 1986: Look, Listen And Decide; 1987: Unfinished Story; 1989: Trouble In The Land Of Plenty; 1996: Out Of The Ashes; 2000: Steam Tracks (Best of); 2001: Live At The Market Theatre – 1st Half (Live); 2002: The 2nd Half (Live); 2010: A Lifetime . . ; and 2011: Turn On The Sun, among others.

Ray Phiri died on July 12, 2017 at a Nelspruit hospital after a battle with lung cancer leaving another chapter of greatness, love, peace, courage and humanity opened. We can’t thank him enough for what he and his band has done for us.

President Jacob Zuma also extended condolences on passing of ‘Music Legend’ Ray Phiri.

“He was a musical giant. This is indeed a huge loss for South Africa and the music industry as a whole. We are with his family in thoughts and prayers during this trying period. May his soul rest in peace,” President Zuma said.

So Long, Bra Ray!

July 2017
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