Raymond Chikapa (Ray) Phiri was born in 1947 in Nelspruit (present-day Mbombela) in Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga). He grew up with a passion for music, and started playing the guitar at a very tender age, inspired by his late father Kanyama Phiri. He learned to play a variety of music instruments, including the piano and drums.
Phiri got his first break in 1962 when he danced for the legendary Dark City Sisters when they performed in the Eastern Transvaal. He made enough money fulfil his ambition to travel to Johannesburg.
He became a founder member of the 1970s soul music group, the Cannibals. When the Cannibals disbanded, he founded Stimela (Steam Train), with whom he produced gold- and platinum-winning albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstasy, Look, Listen and Decide as well as the controversial People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk.
It came as no surprise when one of their most memorable tracks, Whispers In The Deep, or Phinda Mzala as it was affectionately known, was restricted for broadcast by the old South African Broadcasting Corporation. Contrary to the desired effect, the ban in fact contributed to the group’s popularity.
On Singajindi Majita, he urged; “Don’t dare give up,” a message that nestled comfortably with the political conditions of the time. The impact was more mobilisation of a people hungry for freedom, songs such as these providing courage and hope for the future. It was the silent voices of the oppressed that Phiri expressed in his contribution to the attainment of a democratic South Africa.
Phiri was part of the eight month-long Graceland Tour, a global trek headed by American singer Paul Simon. The aim of the tour was to mobilise states in support of the struggle for liberation, for better living standards in oppressed African states and the promotion of cross-cultural dialogue. Phiri later earned a Grammy Award for his participation on the tour. While successful, the tour was fraught with controversy, but it helped the South Africans to make names for themselves abroad.
Ray Phiri and Stimela joined other top South African artists such as Lucky Dube, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Yvonne Chaka Chaka for a tour to France, dubbed Frenchement Zoulou.
He is the founder of the Ray Phiri Artists Institute, which focuses on unearthing and promoting the best music talent that Mpumalanga can produce. The institute is based at Thembeka High School in Ka Nyamazane, a few kilometres from Mbombela.
On 27 April 2011, the State President, Jacob G Zuma, conferred Raymond Chikapa “Ray” Phiri with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his sterling contribution to the South African music industry and the successful use of the arts as an instrument of social transformation.
On 12 July 2017, Ray Phiri died after a battle with lung cancer.The Jazz veteran left behind his mother who was 112 years when he died and his wife Rabelani.