Bra Ray was a South African jazz, fusion and mbaqanga music legend.
Ray Phiri, as he was popularly known across the globe, succumbed after a two-month battle with lung cancer.
Also a guitarist, producer and vocalist, Bra Ray rose to fame when he featured on Paul Simon’s Graceland album in 1986.
He was admitted to hospital two weeks ago and died in the early hours of Wednesday July 12.
Family spokesperson Paul Nkanyane said Phiri died surrounded by friends and relatives at a clinic in the north-eastern city of Nelspruit.
In an interview with The Sowetan newspaper earlier this month, Phiri said: “Let me suffer [in peace with my] pain, on my own with my dignity.”
Bra Ray was a founding member of the Cannibals, which disbanded in the 1970s. He then founded Stimela (‘Train’), with whom he conceived gold- and platinum-selling albums like Fire, Passion and Ecstasy (1991), Look, Listen and Decide (1992) as well as the controversial People Don’t Talk So Let’s Talk.
Ray Phiri was born near Nelspruit in the then Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumalanga province, in South Africa on March 23, 1947.
His big break came in 1985 when Paul Simon asked him along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo to join his Graceland project. The project was a worldwide success which also helped the South African musicians to make names for themselves on the global stage.
This led to a new collaboration with Paul Simon on Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints album, which saw Phiri perform on stages such as Central Park and Madison Square Garden in New York City, as well as appearing on top television shows in the United States.
And in 2012, Paul Simon organised a Graceland anniversary tour which Bra Ray participated in.
Bra Ray has been involved in a series of car accidents. These accidents have had an impact on his personal life and musical career.
Bra Ray 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, and Bra Ray escaped the accident with a serious injury.
Phiri has received many awards in recognition for his contribution in the music industry. Among these is the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver awarded to him by the South African president. This was to honour his sterling contribution to the South African music industry and the successful use of arts as an instrument of social transformation.
His band Stimela is the dominant group in its field. The band was formed when Ray Phiri got together with drummer Isaac Mtshali, Thabo Lloyd Lelosa and Jabu Sibumbe, and they initially called themselves the Cannibals.
The band started out as instrumentalist, but it later evolved to Afro-fusion when they joined forces with vocalist Jacob “Mparanyana” Radebe in 1975. They continued to work together for four years. The band kept going after Radebe died in 1978. They were later joined by the iconic Nana Coyote from Lesotho.
They changed their name to Stimela after a life-changing experience in Mozambique when they were stranded in Maputo for three months.
They had to sell all their belongings to manage to afford a train home. This trip went down as a watershed moment as it was where they conceived the new name for the band, train. which is translated as Stimela in Nguni languages.
Their discography includes, 1982: Fire, Passion And Ecstasy; 1983: Rewind; 1985: Shadows, Fear And Pain; 1986: Look, Listen And Decide; 1987: Unfinished Story; 1989: Trouble In The Land Of Plenty; 1996: Out Of The Ashes; 2000: Steam Tracks (Best of); 2001: Live At The Market Theatre - 1st Half (Live); 2002: The 2nd Half (Live); 2010: A Lifetime...; and 2011: Turn On The Sun, among others.
Phiri died after a battle with lung cancer leaving another chapter of greatness, love, peace, courage and humanity opened. Any music lover can’t thank him enough for what he and his band have done for the world.
South African President Jacob Zuma also extended condolences on the passing of the music legend.
“He was a musical giant. This is indeed a huge loss for South Africa and the music industry as a whole. We are with his family in thoughts and prayers during this trying period. May his soul rest in peace”