“Stimela has helped a lot of artists including Dan Tshanda.
He used to call himself The Flying Sounds and I gave them the name Splash. We are a group that helps others.”
He is a genius, a music legend and those born before the 60’s will remember him as a member of the Cannibals group which was deemed controversial during apartheid days because of their human rights campaign lyrics.
Raymond Chikapa Phiri was in Botswana recently and took The Voice reporter, Daniel Kenosi through his life journey.
How music was back then and today and how the popular “Phinda Mzala” track was composed.
Q. Who is Ray Phiri?
To start with I am a very spiritual person that’s what I can simply say but my real name is Ray Chikapa Phiri.
I am a student of life and every person I meet or have interaction with adds value to my life. It only differs when we don’t agree on certain things.
Q. Please take us back into your music career. How did it all begin?
It’s not a long story. I was influenced by women who used to visit me at hospital.
I suffered from calcium deficiency. Every Thursday I looked forward to hearing those women who came to visit those who didn’t have visitors and sing for us.
Q. And which year was that?
From 1951 to 1960 which means nine years of my life in the hospital.
That shaped my life because of the music I was exposed to, including my father Justnow Phiri.
My father had a funny name, called Justnow. He was a guitar player.
One band man and he would sing every time.
He was from Malawi and passed on around 1973 before I could make it big in the music industry.
He never wanted to teach me and I never understood why up until I noticed that he only had three fingers.
Q. So he was a great guitar player?
He was a big one. He worked in a farm called Crocodile Value, which is where my school is, Ray Phiri Art Institute.
I have been surrounded by sounds, love and great people and a lot of things brought me closer to music.
All of us are musically inclined from the first day we are born.
Are you from Malawi – please explain how you ended up in South Africa.
I was born in Mpumalanga as Ray Fana Zulu. Zulu was my surname and my father passed on when I was four and that’s when my mother got married to Phiri.
Everything that I remember is from my stepfather.
Every little thing that I know, I owe it all to him.
Though he was not my biological father I learnt quite a lot from him and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be the musician that I am today.
Q. Can you please take us back to Stimela. How was the band formed?
Mpharanyane passed on in 1978 and before his death we had a group called.
The Cannibals which came from a Mpaqanga group called The Jabavu Queens which I danced for in 1967 and in 68 I graduated into playing the lead guitar for them.
When Mpharanyane passed on it became hard to replace him.
We tried a lot of guys and in 1980 we went on tour with another group called The Movers.
That is when people suggested that we merge with The Movers to form one group and that is when Stimela was formed.
It was all a merger of The Cannibals and The Movers.
Q. Stimela is a weird name. How did you come up with such a name?
The name emanates from the time we were stranded in Mozambique in 1970.
We wanted a name that people could identify with. Stimela is a reflection of where people are at a certain time even here in Botswana you know that for you to reach Rhodesia you had to use a train.
Calling the group Stimela was a way of saying that we take people from one place to other through music.
Q. The group was formed during the apartheid era. How were you able to grow?
It was not an easy thing because the government of the day felt our songs were spreading messages of hatred and at some point our songs were banned from SABC.
However due to the fact that back then every community had multipurpose halls it was easy to host festivals and a lot of people knew us through the many festivals we hosted.
Yes, we are still together.
All the founding members, Jabu “Jabs” and Thabo Llyod Lelosa are still alive.
Stimela today has become an institution in South Africa.
Every group that wants to hire a musician and they know he or she is from Stimela they don’t hesitate because they know they have a good musician.
A o phinde mzala……….
(takes over)…..naana phinda mzalaa.
That was the first recording which I introduced Coyote though at some point he was not keen to sing like Mahlathini and he said I wanted him to be a copy cat.
Q. So you had wanted him to sing in a hoarse voice?
Yes!! He agreed and that is one of the best works he would be known for because it introduced him to a broader community.
Stimela has helped a lot of artists including Dan Tshanda.
He used to call himself The Flying Sounds and I gave them the name Splash. We are a group that helps others.
Q. Please take us into the present. Do you have your own family?
Yaaa!! I have my own family and was married but my wife passed away in a car accident and so I had to bring up my own child who was seven months old then.
Those are challenges we face in life. She is turning 18 months this month and my other children are grown up and have businesses.
Q. So that’s your grand daughter?
Nooo!! Thats my last daughter. At my age I can still bake (laughs).
Q. Please share with us the wildest thing you have ever done.
I spend most of my time doing music and family because I missed out on them when I lived in the US.
That in itself taught me a lesson that money shouldn’t be the most important thing for the family.
If you are doing that you are wrong because they need you around.
Q. So how do you spend your time?
I cook for my family and check on my garden. I also spend most of my time writing songs for other people.
Q. You also own a school. What’s the school’s focus?
It’s a school for music teachers. We teach them tricks of teaching music science.
Q. I have noticed that you spend most of the time with Zenzele Hirschfield and I understand she is always with you when she is in SA.
Could there be anything beyond what my eyes see?
(Laughs) it’s not that I spend most of my time with her.
She called me when she was in Johannesburg and requested that I help in her charity work. That is when we started getting together.
I then requested that she brings me to Botswana so that I appreciate her work in her home. Maybe this will develop into a good relationship.
Q. Personal relationship?
Work relationship only.
Q. I have noticed that you keep inhaling something. Are you taking drugs?
It’s medication that helps me to reduce smoking.
I used to smoke a lot so that helps me in trying to reduce.
Thank you for your time. And we thank God the weekend is just here.
Q. What’s on your schedule this weekend?
I am going to Johannesburg for The National Arts meeting which I am a board member of.
Q. Do you ever go to clubs for ones and twos?
I am a boring person I can’t even recall the time I went clubbing.
I will be going back home to my kids.
NAME: Raymond Chikapa Phiri
Fav Food: Fish is my dish but I have never tasted a shark and wish to grab one when I visit Japan
Favorite Newspaper in Botswana: I love The Voice
Born: March 23, 1947 in Mpumalanga
Car: I don’t drive any car now. I drove lots of cars back then.