Ray Phiri: The Man, The Legend and The Revolution

2017-07-12 09:58

The first time I saw Ray Phiri performing was when I was at university, he came to the university to perform at a student bash. That was way back in 1991. I still remember very well the scene. First the entire band was on stage and within 8 to 10 minutes or there about Ray Phiri appeared from a dark corner full of laughter – just laughing and laughing loud. He was laughing loud in the midst of lights, a piano playing and a guitar.

Ray Phiri established Stimela music group in an effort to change conversations and change hearts as well as minds. To get people inspired for hope of a better tomorrow. In the midst of utter disaster you can still make your life delightful. Ray Phiri's music was an admixture of pain and delights. He first explores the pain and from there the melody and the lyrics move to a happy mood.

This musical methodology was put to masterpiece level in his notable song: Whispers in the Deep.

Every great movement in history starts by changing conversations — people’s understanding of themselves — even before it changed our laws. Those who are passionate for radical change for a better world have always deployed music, literature, art and theatre to win the people’s hearts and minds away from the debilitating and dispirited status quo.

It is only then that the conversation ground had shifted underfoot, did sweeping political and policy changes follow. And that is the case of South Africa. The struggle against apartheid was multifaceted and diverse. And one thread of the struggle was waged through art, art that captured and captivated the hearts and minds of people. And once the minds and hearts of people are captured it easy then to relay your message deeper down in the hearts.

With Stimela, Ray Phiri dominated the 1980s conversations. He rose to the national and international level; bearing our story of painful experiences. Through him the nation recovered from the painful 1970s that was full of great events such as Soweto Uprisings and many people going into exiles. He conditioned his fellow South Africans with melodies of sweet and pain thus enabling them to rediscover themselves through self analysis and self explorations.

What is the context, what is the message, what is the meaning behind the man, the legend Ray Phiri?

Let us answer those questions by briefly looking at his notable song Whispers in the Deep.

Here are some of the lyrics from Whispers in the Deep:

We are all tributaries of that great river of pain.

Flowing into one ocean.

There is only one ocean.

All our pains flowing into it.

But it did spill over.

Spill over the wonders of love.

Into one nation of love.

Before we recognise that all the oceans

all the oceans are one.

Before these lines above, the song actually begins with horror and pain. Ray Phiri in opening the song states:

This is tasty food for rat and flies.

Call me angry, call me mad

Soul whispers in the deep...

All throughout the land

reaches out to find, to find a hand.

But finds an amputated stomp.

Ray Phiri was in his class as a social prophet talking about an Apartheid South Africa that seemed to him like tasty food for rats and flies. And yet he saw a vision: he saw the same South Africa moving towards a nation of love. In the quietness of music composition and in the midst of an unjust Apartheid system, the calabash of knowledge opened itself up to him. On those isolated deserts of silence, he saw a vision, the nebulous destiny of South Africa. He cast his internal eyes far and wide and discovered another South Africa. Mind you this was in the mid 1980s. Naturally people and artists are influenced by present day events and therefore their music is about the present. But here was Ray Phiri far sighted and talking about the present day.

Ray Phiri with his band: Stimela

Every nation has its social prophets. Social prophets create new worlds. Their minds are factories of inspirations for moving into new vistas. They change paradigms and inspire people to move in a new direction.

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