South Africans and the continent are mourning the death of musician and jazz legend Ray Chikapa Phiri. He died after a two-month battle with lung cancer at the age of 70.
The guitarist, producer and vocalist who rose to fame when he featured on Paul Simon’s Graceland album in 1986 was admitted to hospital two weeks ago and died surrounded by friends and relatives in the early morning hours of Wednesday 12th July.
Ray Phiri was the founding member of the Cannibals in the 1970s and when it disbanded founded Stimela, with whom he conceived gold and platinum-selling 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.
Family spokesperson Paul Nkanyane said “He has been bad for the past few days. I spoke to him on Monday and he was struggling but unfortunately, there was nothing we could have done. The doctors say they tried all that they could to help him out.”
His condition went public in the last week when a fellow musician started a crowdfunding initiative to help pay for his medical bills.
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.”
Paul Nkanyane also said that Ray’s mother who is over 112 years old has not yet been told about her son’s death. “We never expected this to happen to Ray. We don’t know how we are going to tell her. She is very weak and it would devastate her.” On himself and the family he said, “Yoh, they are taking it hard. They knew he was sick but it is still unexpected. Even me, I don’t know how I am having this conversation. He was like a brother to me.”
The late Phiri has been hailed as a musical giant whose qualities included his unique stage pretense, charisma and longevity as an artist.
Those who have paid tribute to him include fellow artists Such as Yvonne Chaka Chaka who says Phiri was one of the greatest artists she knew, who helped to pave her way to success. “We became very good friends and in 1987, I travelled to New York and met him on 42nd Street and he took me to this beautiful apartment where I met Miriam Makeba.”
Sipho ‘Hot sticks’ Mabuse also remembers Phiri as an energetic all-rounder in the music industry. “His music lives through many of the young musicians that listened to his music.”
Politically his passing has prompted rousing tributes spanning from President Jacob Zuma, who previously bestowed him with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his contribution to the music industry and the struggle against apartheid.
To the African National Congress Party’s Zizi Kodwa who said, “It’s important that the current generation talks about the challenges that face young people, challenges such as unemployment, abuse of drugs and alcohol. Through their music, they must inspire to take up opportunities.”
And even Inkatha Freedom Party’s Joshua Mazibuko who says Phiri continued to give hope to South Africans even after democracy. “He remained in the belly of the beast at the height of apartheid atrocities to conscientize our people, to give them hope during the days of darkness until after liberation and he continued to be a source of encouragement even to the youth.”
Tributes have also been circulating on social media under the hashtag #RIPRayPhiri