Three days ago, while reaching for a suitcase to pack for his Grahamstown trip, Ray Phiri, the grand old man of mbaqanga music, falls off a chair and breaks three ribs.
Ray Phiri performs at the Guy Butler Theatre in Grahamstown on 10 June 2015 at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Phiri has received many awardsin recognition for his contribution in the music industry, including, in 2011, the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, SouthAfrica’s highest civilian honour for excellence and contribution to the arts, and, in 2012, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the South African Music Awards (SAMA). (Photo: CUEPIX/Kate Janse van Rensburg)
On Friday evening he walks onto stage with a limp, greets a capacity crowd, and starts groaning the blues. His guitarist, somewhat surprisingly for a band billed as playing quintessentially South African sounds, is a white man with dreadlocks and a Rastafari beanie, but he holds things down well enough. Phiri, who is 68, stands tilted to one side, clutching above his left hip; he’s a bluesman from a lost era, phrasing his lyrics just so. All seems fine enough – and then the show gets weird.
Around three songs in, Phiri tells us about his injury, lifting his shirt to reveal swathes of bandages. “I wouldn’t wish this pain on anybody,” he says. “If you’re a smart Alec, or a smart Alice, you might take a picture, record tonight. Maybe this old man trapped inside a young man’s body is giving you a message. Maybe he’s just a visitor. Maybe he won’t be around for much longer, you know.”
In tears Phiri leaves the stage, and his band, looking deeply anxious, plays through the remainder of a smooth jazz song. There is a terrible tension in the room. Nobody knows if Phiri is coming back. When he does, the applause is muted. Are we watching a man at death’s door? The performance that follows is inconsistent: now he is twitching his legs about, hopping from foot to foot as people shout encouragement; now he is seized up again, wiping his face with tissues and instructing his younger band members to take extended solos. The bass player’s face is a mask of terror, like he’s trapped in some awful waking dream.
Internationally, Phiri is most famous for his appearance, alongside Ladysmith Black Mambazo, on Paul Simon’s Graceland project, which took South African guitar and bass riffs to the world in 1985. Locally, he has a massive following for his work with Stimela, which he founded in the early 1970s and recorded with for more than 20 years. The Guy Butler theatre is packed to the brim with devoted fans (40s and upwards) suspended between wanting more from Phiri and hoping for his torment to end.
He begins limbering up, moving more freely. A song with a harder beat starts up. Now he is jiving beside the bassist, whose smile is stretched tight like a skull’s. And then the unthinkable happens: to screams of both “No!” and “Yes!” Phiri lowers himself, shaking, into the splits.
His aides rush out carrying wooden stools and tea. Phiri shrugs them off. Now he’s going for it. People are on their feet. The entire room is singing along to Zwakala (Come To Me), probably Stimela’s biggest hit. Is this what the music industry does to people? Pull them back out for more and more, insatiably drinking up refrains from decades ago, reliving a past that has hurtled away? Is this beautiful or tragic? It’s impossible to tell.
“This is what entertainment is about,” Phiri says moments later. “That’s what art does: expose the contradictions of humanity. Right?” He closes his eyes near the end, clasping his hands to his chest. “Thank you for your energy,” he tells his audience. “The healing has begun.”
Kimon de Greef
Cue specialist writer
Touching piece! It would have been good without the rhetorical questions though. You experienced a legend who, at this time of his life, has all his raw nerves exposed. The dichotomy of being a true artist is embodied in the artist’s duplicity of identities. They have a biological family and a musical one. Ray buried his beautiful wife just over a week ago. His biological family, daughters and son, barred him from doing the Grahamstown show but the artist in him couldn’t be suppressed, he simply could not let down the fans who had purchased tickets. The rest is history. On Friday night my phone didn’t stop ringing. People at the show were calling worried about the health of their idol and later calling with raving appreciation of a man who had irrefutable excuses to pull out of the show but chose to share his agony and ecstasy with them. They felt special and were certainly not asking rhetoric posers!
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