Ray Phiri, ‘Graceland’ Guitarist and Anti-Apartheid Bandleader, Dies at 70

Raymond Chikapa Enock Phiri was born on March 23, 1947, in what was then called the Eastern Transvaal of South Africa, and grew up near Nelspruit, an agricultural area in what is now the province of Mpumalanga. His stepfather, who was from Malawi, played guitar but gave it up after losing three fingers in an accident. Mr. Phiri took that guitar and largely taught himself to play.

He moved to Johannesburg in 1967 to work as a musician.

Stimela grew out of a soul band Mr. Phiri founded in the 1970s, the Cannibals, which had a string of hit singles in South Africa. In the early ’80s, Mr. Phiri and members of the Cannibals formed Stimela (the name means “steam train”). Mr. Phiri led the group, wrote songs, played guitar and often sang lead vocals.

Stimela merged the flexibility of jazz and the sleekness of R&B with the buoyant rhythms of South African styles like mbaqanga; its songs also recognized the tensions of living under apartheid. With its debut album, “Fire, Passion, Ecstasy,” released in 1984, Stimela began a three-decade career as a top South African band.

In the ’80s and early ’90s, Stimela’s music came up at times against the limits of what could be publicly expressed under apartheid. Some of its songs were banned from broadcast on the state-controlled radio station, SABC, notably “Whispers in the Deep,” which urged, “Speak your mind/Don’t be afraid.” Despite the radio ban, the 1986 album containing that song, “Look, Listen and Decide,” became a best seller.


From left, Joseph Shabalala, Miriam Makeba, Paul Simon and Ray Phiri during a concert in Zimbabwe in 1987.

Associated Press

“Where Did We Go Wrong,” a 1984 duet with a white singer, Katie Pennington, was also refused radio play.

Mr. Simon recorded “Graceland” in 1985 and 1986, working on most of its songs with…

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