Obituary: Ray Phiri, South African jazz vocalist and guitarist on Paul Simon’s Graceland album

Paul Simon, centre, plays a finale with lead guitarist Ray Phiri, left. Picture: Malcolm Clarke
Paul Simon, centre, plays a finale with lead guitarist Ray Phiri, left. Picture: Malcolm Clarke
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Ray Phiri, a South African jazz musician who founded the band Stimela and became internationally known while performing on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, died of cancer on Wednesday at age 70.

Phiri, a vocalist and guitarist known for his versatility in jazz fusion, indigenous South African rhythms and other styles, received many music awards in his home country. His death was met with nationwide tributes.

“He was a musical giant. This is indeed a huge loss for South Africa and the music industry as a whole,” President Jacob Zuma said in a statement.

Political parties also expressed condolences, saying Phiri’s songs resonated among many South Africans, particularly during the era of white minority rule that ended in 1994.

“An immensely gifted composer, vocalist and guitarist, he breathed consciousness and agitated thoughts of freedom through his music,” said the ruling African National Congress party, which was the main movement against apartheid until it took power in the country’s first all-race elections.

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said people grew up with Phiri’s music. Stimela’s best-known albums include Fire, Passion and Ecstasy and Look, Listen and Decide, and Phiri contributed as a guitarist to Simon’s Graceland album in the 1980s. The album evolved from Simon’s interest in South African music.