The story of the phenomenal life of Ray Phiri still needs to be told

13th July 2017

The story of the phenomenal life of Ray Phiri still needs to be told

I regret that Ray Phiri and I never managed to get to write his biography, as we had planned to do, writes Kaizer Nyatsumba.

To this day, I have a very clear recollection of the very first time that I met Ray Chikapa Phiri. The year was 1989 and I was a Senior Reporter on The Star covering various beats and often writing most of the human-interest stories and newsmakers’ profiles. That was before I was to specialise in politics.

Stimela was in the process of recording its album, “Trouble in the Land of Plenty”, and I met Ray at the Ferndale, Randburg studio where they were recording.

Like many other black South Africans at the time, I had known about him and his band, Stimela, for a number of years and was in total awe of him. As Ray emerged from the studio to meet me in a private room, he was an embodiment of warmth and friendship. Here was this superstar, who had toured around the world with American Paul Simon, and yet he made me, then a young reporter, totally comfortable with him. It was as if we had known each other for years.

When the story was subsequently published in “The Little Spot”, a short section then set aside for colour-story profiles on the Leader Page, Ray called me to express his happiness with the end product. (A week earlier, I had written about Aggrey Klaaste who, upon promotion to the editorship of Sowetan, had introduced his “Nation Building” philosophy).

We did not speak again until a decade later when I was founding Editor of The Independent on Saturday in Durban. My friend, Sheriff Linda Molefe, and his wife Mydudu had driven from Nelspruit to holiday in the coastal city and they spent some time with us at our home in Westville. Sheriff received a call from Ray, a friend of his for many years, and he informed him that he was with me. He then handed the cellular phone to me and Ray and I exchanged pleasantries.

Although Sheriff and I had spent six months together as close friends at university (before I transferred to another institution abroad) and had visited each other upon my return, he had not once spoken about his close friendship with Ray Phiri. It was only after that telephone conversation with Ray that he told me in detail about their long-standing friendship.

When I hosted friends and family in celebration of my 40th birthday in 2003, Sheriff came to the party at my home in Johannesburg with Ray and his daughter, Thulisile Phesheya Phiri. Great company as always, Ray was life of the party, during which he indulged us with an impromptu performance of a number of his and Stimela’s songs.

As a birthday gift, Ray gave me a signed, hand-written note, which I was to take to his recording company in Rosebank, which would give me all his CDs. I duly did so in the following week, and continue to enjoy those CDs – and his subsequent ones that I have purchased – to this day. Thanks to our mutual friend Sheriff, our friendship with Ray continued to grow. Among the things we had in common was the fact that the three of us call the province of Mpumalanga home.

Somewhere in 2012 or 2013, Ray asked me to write his biography. He said that he had so much that he wanted to share with the country and the world in his biography. I felt honoured that he had chosen me for so important a task, and agreed readily to do so.

However, at the time I was frantically working on my own book, Incomplete Without My Brother, Adonis, whenever I had a spare time. When I told him this, he and I agreed that we would work on his biography as soon as I had finished my manuscript. When I finished the manuscript in November 2013 and sent it off to publishers, I informed Ray that I was then ready for us to start working on his biography. He undertook to make time for us to meet regularly so that he would tell me his life story as I recorded it. Regrettably, owing to his busy schedule, this did not happen right away.

There was an interesting profile of Ray Phiri published in the Mail & Guardian on 21 April this year. When I finished reading that article, I sent Ray the following text message at 22:13 that same day, which still remains on my phone: “My brother Ray, I hope that you are well. Reading the article on you in the Mail & Guardian has just reminded me of our long-standing arrangement for me to write your biography. I am now ready to do so when you have time. We will need to spend a lot of time together, talking while I record and/or take notes. Please let me know when you would like us to get started. Best regards, Kaizer”.

Days went by without a reply from Ray. When I called him a few days later, I found both his numbers off and did not leave a message. However, some two or three weeks later, Ray phoned me: “Mfowethu Nyatsumba,” he said when I answered the phone. He always called me by my surname.

He explained that he had lost his phone and, as a result, he had lost many contacts’ details. He had recently had a sim swop and had then received my message of 21 April.

Ray was delighted that I was now available to work with him on his biography. He undertook to make time for us to meet more often and work on the biography. Sadly, God had other plans for him.

I regret deeply the fact that Ray and I did not get to write and publish his biography before his passing away. I wish that I had time, when he first approached me in 2012, to get started on it right away.

The story of the phenomenal life of Ray Chikapa Phiri, an African musical genius and legend, needs to be told. I hope still to be able to tell that story one day, in collaboration with his daughter Thuli, his other children and friends.

A writer and former newspaper Editor, Kaizer M. Nyatsumba is a senior business executive in Johannesburg.