ENTERTAINMENT

The Genesis Of Ray Phiri And The Inspiration Behind His Dance Moves

"Music did not happen to me by mistake."

13/07/2017 10:36 SAST | Updated 13/07/2017 14:00 SAST

During an interview in May with HuffPost SA, the late world-renowned musician Ray Phiri shared why he was never able to dance "fashionably".

At the time, Phiri was rehearsing and gearing up for the Zafiko Festival which took place in Durban at the end of May. Phiri died on Wednesday of lung cancer.

Speaking of the early years of his life, the 70-year-old revealed how music discovered him.

"I'm blessed. Music did not happen to me by mistake. It discovered me. My father, 'Justnow' Kanyama Phiri, was a guitar player and always played for the farming community of Crocodile Valley Citrus Estate when there were events. I used to accompany him to go and play during weekends and would help carry his instruments," Phiri said.

He told HuffPost SA at the time that his father would make him collect small stones which he placed in empty tins.

Phiri said: "My father would then use a string to tie the tins around his ankles so that when he moves his feet while playing, the stones would make pervasive sounds. It was great to watch people marvel at how skilled he was."

And the dance moves?

"What was very interesting was that on the guitar, my father had attached two puppets, a male and female with a string. So, every time he played, the puppets would sort of dance to the music. It was funny but people loved it and I still don't know how he did that. That is why even today, I dance like those puppets. I don't know how to dance fashionably like the youngsters are doing these days. You can say that my father's puppets taught me how to dance," Phiri said.

When in 1964, his father lost three of his fingers in an accident, Phiri inherited his guitar. And that's how he learnt to play.

"However, he refused to teach me. Initially, I thought this man was being unkind, but as an adult now I can understand that he could not play with only two fingers. I struggled with it almost every day after school. I then got myself a job as a gardener and after school, I would go to the white children and ask them to teach me," he explained.

Phiri's first shot at a gig was not unlike of his age-mates' stories.

"When I had saved enough money I bought myself a tuner that showed how to play certain keys. I continued to play until one lucky day in July 1967. While at the Nelspruit Showgrounds, I got on stage and danced for my life when The Dark City Sisters backing band was playing. To cut a long story short, I left with that band to Johannesburg until I was arrested in 1970 under apartheid laws as I did not have a permit to be there," he said

He added: "When I was back in Nelspruit, I danced for my cousin's band called the Jabavu Queens. But I knew that things were changing from Mbaqanga to soul music. Then we started playing soul and called ourselves The Cannibals. We got to Johannesburg with a single called It's Funny and wanted to record it. We initially wanted to call our band Amazimuzimu but were told we couldn't because Mahlathini [real Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde] had just released a song called Amazimuzimu. So I basically just translated that to English and said we're The Cannibals and that's how it all started," he said.

Phiri later became a founding member of the world-renowned band, Stimela better known for hits like "Zwakala" and "Whispers In The Deep".