Not only did he show us how to dance with absolute abandon, he also urged us never to let up in his Singa Jindi Majita, enjoining us to “speak out our minds” and not to “whisper in the deep”.
His lyrics needed no further elaboration, for his audience knew exactly what he was talking about.
How underdeveloped might our skills in dealing with adversity have been had we never heard Ray Phiri hit the high notes in his Highland Drifter, singing: “Nothing can make me leave this place, nothing can make me change my life’?
Ray Phiri continued earlier and older traditions in which music and art played a key role in the cultivation of hope, courage and resilience.
Music, drama and art have played a key role in the rites and rituals of pre-colonial African societies. Chants, sighs and sounds have long been used to connect the living, the dead and the gods.
Our capacity for tackling injustice would have been greatly diminished had the miners of the Witwatersrand, some of whom musicologist Hugh Tracey recorded nearly 100 ago, not shown us how to appropriate and enlist indigenous song and dance techniques as weapons in the war against economic subjugation and dehumanisation.
Cast in idioms the mine owners could never decode, the furious dances were designed to disrupt the inner logic of the migratory labour system. It provided the miners with necessary instalments of inspiration to charge them up to face the next difficult day. It also gave the miners opportunity to poke fun at the mining houses, whose brutal recruitment strategies were intended to break them.
As Johnny Clegg and Juluka sang in their African Sky Blue, the Johannesburg mines reduced the erstwhile African “warrior” into a wage “worker”, fighting in the dark, deep inside the mine shaft, where “he broke the bleeding veins of gold”.
Sadly, the living conditions of miners in South Africa have not changed much since the discovery of gold on the Reef. These pitiable conditions were part of the reason for the Marikana strike of 2012.
Forty-four corpses of young black men later, the mineworkers of today need more than songs and dances, but not less.
Music and the arts remain the booster pack that the human spirit needs, so it can fire on all cylinders even in the face of calamity. Consider how much poorer in spirit we might have been had our musical and cultural sensitivities not been invoked, provoked and enhanced by Abdullah Ibrahim’s Water from an Ancient Well, Hugh Masekela’s Nomali, Miriam Makeba’s Promise, Bheki Mseleku’s Almost Home, Jonas Gwangwa’s Diphororo, Sankomota’s Now or Never, Letta Mbulu’s Maru a Pula or Sipho Mabuse’s Shikisha.
In the 1960s and ’70s - when apartheid reigned supreme and political prisoners slipped on soap and died, or jumped off the 11th floor at John Vorster Square and perished, and many people simply “disappeared” into thin air - South Africans took refuge in the music of Mahlathini (Simon Nkabinde) and the Mahotella Queens, Steve Kekana, Daniel Shirinda, Vusi Ximba, the Movers and the Soul Brothers.
In the 1980s, the likes of Brenda Fassie, Chicco Thwala and Stimela provided the musical fuel for the epidemic of ungovernability sweeping through the land.
Between the Free Mandela concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we will never know for sure as to what tipped the scales in the call for Nelson Mandela to be released.
What inspired South Africans more in the late ’80s and early ’90s - FW de Klerk’s famous February 2,1990, unbanning speech, or Brenda’s Fassie’s songs Soon and Very Soon, Weekend Special and My Black President? Who contributed more to social cohesion and nation-building - the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Amnesty Committee or Mandoza’s song, Nkalakatha? In 1994, who inspired the youth more - Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech or the song Never Again, by hip-hop group Prophets of Da City?
We will never comprehend fully the percentage share of music and art in South Africa’s quest for healing through truth and reconciliation, but we can be sure that without music and art, there would be neither healing nor reconciliation to debate about.
This is as true for music as it is for fine art, the spoken word and literature. If there is even the smallest grain of truth in what I say, then perhaps the likes of Harry Belafonte, Tshepo Tshola, PJ Powers, Thomas Chauke, Jonathan Butler, Colbert Mukwevho and Koos Kombuis deserve the Nobel Peace Prize as much as FW de Klerk did, if not more.
Actually, we cause harm when we confine and define any great artist merely and only in terms of their geographic residence or origins.
Great artists do not fit neatly into any box - especially ethnic, geographical and national boxes. That Chinua Achebe was Nigerian does not stop the Finnish and Canadians from finding resonance with and in his Things Fall Apart.
The works of great South African artists, such sculptor Dumile Feni and painters Gladys Mgudlwa and Gerald Sekoto are rightfully acclaimed internationally.
It’s a pity their work may not be as widely known in the land of their birth. In this regard, we owe Chabani Manganyi a debt of gratitude for his breathtaking biography of Sekoto and for bringing some of his artwork back home from Paris.
If it weren’t for the novels of Elena Ferrante, the stresses and strains of navigating the unseemly politics of contemporary South Africa would have killed me by now.
I speak of a kind of death that comes through the throttling of the spirit and the gradual downgrading of a starved soul.
By now, I might be counted among the amageza at whom Gwede Mantashe was recently heard laughing frivolously.
It occurs to me that perhaps the best way to appreciate what is truly going on in South Africa is to focus less on political parties, political leaders and their spokespeople and more on artists.
Cassper Nyovest’s song Tito Mboweni reveals, among the youth, more truth about the elusive value of the rand than the SARB governor Leseja Kganyago or Finance Minister Malusi Gaba can ever do.
In one short and sharp three-minute poem, Don Materra will give us more to think about than Zizi Kodwa will in a 45-minute-long press statement. In one stand-up comedy night, Tumi Morake and Trevor Noah can give us much more perceptive political analysis than the battalion of talking-heads on Gupta-TV ever will.
Sculptor of stone, bone and derelict metal, Pitika Ntuli can inspire more hope and more courage than President Jacob’s SONA ever can.
Did I hear Ntuli last week, saying on one national radio station, that he might be considering relocating to another country, “because South Africa has no place for an artist like me”? I sincerely hope he will reconsider. South Africa needs each and every artist, at this time.
* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria and an extraordinary professor at the University of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter handle - @ProfTinyiko.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent