Ray Phiri

Seen on July 10, 2015 @ National Arts Festival, Grahamstown

The expectations are high when one of South Africa’s living musical icons is to bring his music and presence into a packed Guy Butler Hall where fans young and old are gathered to hear the legend. But the way he walks on stage betrays something. A bluesy guitar, stories of pain, a jazzy piano and the deep voice of Ray Phiri. Frailty is not far. A hammond tune on the piano. Ray Phiri showing some dance moves while the young musicians try to find the sound that Phiri is looking for. “It is good to be an old man chap in a young man’s body,” jokes Phiri, but then he confesses “I am not well, the Lord has tried me in many ways, but I am up for it.” The remembrance of his late wife and the three recently broken ribs are too much for the man.

We witness a man in pain, looking to die in dignity after a life of trials, asking for painkillers, for songs that sooth a soul in despair. The young musicians look very uncertain what to do. The audience feels for Phiri, not sure whether it can cope with seeing a man in pain. Soon everybody realises it is true. The man is hurting. The agony of the aching body is visible. Sometimes he crawls from the pain. But Phiri rather dies on stage than cancel the show that a lot of people paid good money for. He seems to constantly ask the band to find a balming sound for his deep pain. He does not want to give up. Cheered by the audience he finds some energy to play some of his hits that have the audience jump up and dance. He does not find a position. He calls it the paradox of art and the contradictions in society. Because of budgetary reasons he could not bring backing vocals so the audience gets the job. The music brings some healing. But Phiri promises to be back next year to take revenge.