Ray Phiri: The Highland Drifter

Submitted by Harris Mavuthela on Fri, 07/21/2017 - 15:29
UbuntuFM Africa | Ray Phiri (1947-2017)
The purpose of music is to communicate
Commemorative article by King Vusi Mavuthela on Ray Phiri (1947-2017) who passed on July 12, 2017. 

Raymond Chikapa Enock Phiri (March 23, 1947 – July 12, 2017) was a South African Jazz, Fusion and Mbaqanga musician born in Mpumalanga to a Malawian immigrant worker and a South African guitarist nicknamed "Just Now" Phiri. 


Ray Phiri collaborated with Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Simon's Graceland album project in 1985. Before this collaboration Phiri already had had a long and outstanding musical career.

In the 70's Bra Ray left Barberton in Mpumalanga to join 'Jabavu Queens and The Cannibals' with Jacob ‘Mpharanyana’ Radebe and later on started Stimela which over 30 years is still going strong. With Stimela he conceived gold and platinum selling albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstacy (1982), Look, Listen and Decide (1986).

Phiri was to collaborate with Paul Simon again on Simon's Rhythm of the Saints album, which saw him perform in over 30 nations during 1990 and 1991, including The Concert in The Park (August 1991, Central Park) and New York's Madison Square Garden, as well as appearing on Saturday Night Live and other top television shows in the United States. The tour concluded in early 1992 with concerts staged in South Africa at venues in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban. In 2012 Simon organised a European Graceland 25th Anniversary Tour in which Phiri also contributed his voice, guitar and leadership.

Personal life

Phiri was involved in a series of car accidents which impacted his personal life and musical career. In 2003, his wife was killed in a car accident, with Ray escaping serious injury. He had been badly injured before in 1987 in a car crash that claimed the lives of his band manager and six others who were with him returning from a music concert.

From my personal recollection as for music lovers across the nation, I could not wait for anything except good news coming from the hospital. When the news broke at the time - if my memory serves me well - by one popular radio personality that Bra Ray had responded after being on coma. This was the best news that brought joy and jubilation to millions of people. 

I still feel that God heard our prayers and saw it fit to answer our prayers in a manner we were waiting for. We were neither ready nor prepared to lose him, hence God saved him.

Now, 30 years after that horrific accident God took him. God needed him more and there was no other time other than now. Through His grace he did so much for us musically and contribution is there for all to see. 

All that is needed is to thank God for answering our prayers then and to wish Bra Ray a peaceful journey home where he will be part of God’s Heavenly Orchestra with Bra Johnny Mekoa who also was laid to rest recently. 

Truly, so the giant is gone!

Ray Phiri died on July 12, 2017 at the age of 70 from lung cancer and laid to rest on July 22, 2017 in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

Mpumalanga: THE PLACE WHERE THE SUN RISES. How appropriate!

Phiri was honoured with Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his outstanding contribution in music by the State President of the Republic of South Africa who also paid special tribute to him. He was granted a Provincial State funeral with National flags to fly at half-mast in the province on a day of the funeral.


Ray Phiri was truly a musical genius and a most humble individual. This is a musician who beyond doubt has contributed immensely to the music industry in South Africa and beyond.

He worked with a number of musicians, collaborating, being featured or as a member and also as a solo artist. But it is his work with Stimela that propelled him to the hearts of millions of fans across the world. 

Stimela has been a force to be reckoned with and the voice of the people during the dark days of apartheid to this day. Their music has been relevant as the music that tells the truth hence one of their songs that he wrote I hate telling a lie. Songs such as Highland Drifter, Whispers in the deep (Awuphinde mzala), Who’s fooling who and Rubbing sand in my eyes and Singajindi majita are some of the songs that kept the momentum going. 

Whenever we are talking about South Africa, the name of Stimela, fondly known as the People’s Band, with Bra Ray Phiri as the leader will always stand out.

With his contribution to Paul Simon’s Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints albums he not only put himself to another level, but the albums as well. Without Phiri and the other African musicians Graceland simply would not have been. It was the moment that made the world took note of our music.

In a 2011 interview with The Sunday Times, Phiri said that there was "bad blood" between him and Simon. Phiri maintained that Simon never gave him credit for the songs he had written for Graceland, and that Ladysmith Black Mambazo "hardly got any royalties". But he added: "maybe I wouldn't have been able to handle all that wealth. I sleep at night, I have my sanity and I enjoy living. The big rock 'n' roll machine did not munch me." 

I personally interviewed him for my radio show in 2015. Bra Ray spoke about very strong issues that were very close to his heart, which were about preserving his legacy for the next generation; to know about his contribution and about our music. An area we are ignoring as a (South African) nation. He was also passionate about sharing his talent with young and up-coming artists.

The purpose of music is to communicate something… Some of our songs will outlive us. I will pass away and the songs will still be played because I invested in writing songs for the people. – Ray “Chikapa” Phiri

Bra Ray might be gone but his music lives on. This is an Unfinished story…..

Singajindi majita!

May his soul rest in peace.

Stimela image credit: Neo Ntsoma