Jazz legend Ray Phiri. Picture: Independent Media

‘We don’t remember Ray Phiri because of a song, we remember Ray Phiri because of the character,” said renowned Mozambican saxophonist, Moreira Chonguica.

“It’s not about any particular song, but the man who made that song. This man has values, this man has an identity, this man is not static, he’s dynamic. We were influenced by Ray Phiri the person. The songs were just a vehicle. There’s no person who doesn’t remember his face. But there are many songs you know of his that you don’t even know he composed.”

Ray Phiri’s untimely passing has shaken the music industry to its core. The outpouring of tributes speak volumes of the considerable impact Phiri had across the country and around the continent.

Many of these tributes were not only paying homage to his impressive work as a musician, but also his character.

With the pain still fresh and raw from the news of Phiri’s passing, Moreira was sombre, philosophical and full of praise when we spoke last Wednesday. He was particularly moved by what Phiri stood for. “Ray is a man that had a different type of voice.

“He was a believer in the long term vision of music and positioning of the African culture as a whole. So I’m not talking about Ray Phiri just the guitar player, the fantastic singer, the fantastic entertainer, the fantastic composer, the fantastic producer - I’m talking about Ray the man.”

In 2012, Chonguica had the privilege of being with him in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at an AU committee gathering. He cherishes this memory because it allowed him to view Phiri in a different light - as a visionary and fiercely passionate African.

Even at his age and his level of success, the composer, singer and guitarist showed no signs of slowing down until the very end. Throughout the year, his name and likeness have been plastered on flyers and posters for major events and festivals across the country.

Phiri’s storied career both as a solo artist and with his band, Stimela, has spawned several accolades, including being awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver in 2011 and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Music Awards a year later. His discography comprises over a dozen albums.

Award-winning jazz vocalist, Nomfundo Xaluva shared her experience growing up to his music. “Ray Phiri’s music was the soundtrack to my childhood. I was first introduced to jazz by my late grandfather. The sound of Ray Phiri and Stimela and that era is just so vivid. It really just encapsulate one’s years and one’s life,” she briefly mumbles a few of her favourite songs, reflecting on the memories they carry.

“The music is so iconic. To think that the first time I heard that music I was a toddler and yet now at 33 years old when I hear that music I still go mad. It’s definitely the music of identity, it’s so strong.”

Xaluva met Phiri on only one occasion at a corporate function at a wine estate in Somerset West about seven years ago. 

“I remember they arrived literally about two or three hours before showtime in a classic kind of tour combi (minibus taxi) that reeked of complete superstardom. I was completely starstruck. And they happened to be looking around when I was sound-checking with the band and then because their tent was right next to ours and all the artists were eating in the same space he came up to me, I greeted him and he paid me a compliment about singing beautifully. And then I just watched them perform and I was completely spellbound. I never interacted with him one-on-one again after that.”

She went on to speak glowingly of his authenticity, humility and commitment. “He struck me as the kind of person who understood the impact of his influence but never really let it get to his head. I think he understood it to be his gift and understood that he was a major star, but at the same time his feet were still so firmly on the ground.”

DANCE MOVES: Ray Phiri on stage. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

I asked Chonguica how much of an influence Phiri had on his music and if he listened to him growing up. “It’s one of those things that you had no choice over. Stimela was everywhere,” he laughs warmly.

“There was no choice. Your father wakes up in the morning and listens to Hugh Masekela, Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba, and then late afternoon he’s listening to Stimela.

“I believe we were so privileged to grow up with such big references of pan-Africanism Time has come for us young people to choose what our future is. And references like Ray, Manu Dibangu, Bra Hugh, Angelique Kidjo have started a legacy from which we can absorb, consume, improve, innovate and take it to the next level.

“There’s no excuse for us to say that we didn’t have references. And the time has come for us to write our stories, because they’ve started the book and this book has millions of pages. We have to take it to the next level.”