July 12, 2017 – Ray Phiri (Paul Simon) was born March 23, 1947 near Nelspruit in the then Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumalanga Province, in South Africa to a Malawian immigrant worker and South African guitarist nicknamed “Just Now” Phiri. 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.
He became a founding member of the Cannibals in the 1970s. When the Cannibals disbanded Ray founded Stimela, a widely acclaimed, long-running band that confronted apartheid,with whom he conceived gold and platinum-selling albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstacy (1991), Look, Listen and Decide (1992) as well as the controversial People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk. 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.
In 1985, Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel fame, asked Ray along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians to join his Graceland project, which was successful and also helped the South African musicians to make names for themselves abroad.
Ray was to collaborate with Paul Simon again on Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints album, which saw him perform in over 30 nations during 1990 and 1991 including “The Concert in The Park (August 1991, Central Park) and New York’s Madison Square Garden as well as appearing on Saturday Night Live and other top television shows in the United States.
The tour concluded in early 1992 with concerts staged in South Africa at venues in Johannesburg, Capetown, Port Elizabeth and Durban. In 2012 Paul Simon organized a European Graceland 25th Anniversary Tour in which Ray also contributed his voice, guitar and leadership.
Phiri has been involved in a series of car accidents which have had an impact on his personal life and musical career. Phiri was badly injured in 1987 in a crash that claimed the lives of his band manager and six others. In 2003, his wife was killed in a car accident, with Ray escaping serious injury.
Phiri’s career in South Africa was far more extensive. He had gold and platinum albums there with Stimela, which has continued to tour and record. Stimela’s 2010 album, “A Lifetime,” was named best adult contemporary album at the 2011 South African Music Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Grammys.
Mr. Phiri also had solo side projects, and produced and wrote songs for other acts. He was a longtime member of South Africa’s National Arts Council. He received a lifetime achievement award at the South African Music Awards in 2012. There was no immediate information about survivors.
In 2011, Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, awarded Mr. Phiri the Order of Ikhamanga, a national honor, citing “the successful use of arts as an instrument of social transformation.” In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Zuma called Ray Phiri “a musical giant.”
“For me, music is the closest thing to religion,” Mr. Phiri said in “Under African Skies,” a 2011 documentary about the making of “Graceland.” “And if it’s utilized in the right way, it can inform and bring people closer, and they can find solutions to their problems.”
Phiri’s guitar playing held echoes of African traditions, full of percussive subtleties and springy rhythms, which he merged with a fluent understanding of soul and funk and delivered with a warm, rounded tone. He sang in English and in South African languages with an earnest sense of urgency, while his lyrics recognized adversity and called for love, determination, honesty and unity.
Phiri died at the age of 70 on July 12, 2017 at a Nelspruit hospital after a battle with lung cancer.