Ray Phiri (born 23 March 1947, Hermansberg, near Nelspruit, South Africa – died 12 July 2017, Nelspruit, South Africa), whose guitar work reached a worldwide audience through his distinctive contributions to Paul Simon‘s hit Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints LPs, has died at the age of 70.
The BBC brings word of Phiri’s death, which took place at a clinic in the South African city of Nelspruit two months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He’d been hospitalized for several weeks, during which time he was the unwilling focus of a crowdfunding campaign to help defray his medical costs; according to an interview excerpted in the BBC’s report, he asked fans to let him “suffer [in peace with my] pain, on my own with my dignity.”
Phiri’s last public request reflects his lifelong approach to dealing with tragedy and misfortune. Among South Africa’s most widely respected musicians, he rose to prominence with his group Stimela (“train” in the Nguni language), a pioneering fusion band whose blend of smooth jazz with the Afropop mbaqanga sound proved popular — although not with the South African government in the apartheid era, during which Stimela’s records were occasionally banned and the state reportedly even tried spying on the group.
International stardom for Phiri proved somewhat fleeting — although his beautiful tone is instantly recognizable to anyone who listened to Simon’s music during the Graceland and Rhythm of the Saintsera, his tenure in Simon’s band was fairly brief given the massive success those albums enjoyed, and in later years, he alleged that he’d never been fairly credited or compensated for his work. Speaking with the Sunday Times, he spoke of his feud with Simon, but concluded — as he so often did — on an optimistic note.
“There’s bad blood with Paul Simon,” said Phiri. “He never gave me credit on the album for the songs I wrote, and financially we hardly got any royalties. But 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.”
In more recent years, Phiri continued to deal with personal struggles, including the death of his third wife in a 2014 car crash, yet he saw his musical legacy continue to grow — particularly at home, where the fall of South Africa’s racist apartheid regime opened an era in which his talents were not only acknowledged but valued by the state. In the wake of his passing, the African National Congress issued a statement praising Phiri’s inestimable contributions to the national culture.
“Ray Phiri was a voice for the voiceless and a legend of our time,” it reads. “An immensely gifted composer, vocalist and guitarist, he breathed consciousness and agitated thoughts of freedom through his music … He has played his role in unearthing and support new talent in the industry and has been an ardent and vocal advocate of the call for greater investment in local content development and the development of the industry as a whole.”