Mmegi Online :: On the road with Uncle John and Ausi Sonti to bury Ray Phiri (Pt II)
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Wednesday 23 August 2017, 06:00 am.
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On the road with Uncle John and Ausi Sonti to bury Ray Phiri (Pt II)

The student was still learning music at this point in hilife and when his dad came over from Francistown or they visited home over the holidays he would listen, watch and absorb as much as he could.
By Botsalo Ntuane Fri 04 Aug 2017, 14:49 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: On the road with Uncle John and Ausi Sonti to bury Ray Phiri (Pt II)








Then the mighty Franco Makiadia and his  group OK Jazz came on tour. Other big names from Zaire including Johnny Bokello also came to Bulawayo  and  the young  John hung around, watched, listened and learnt.

Surrounded by music, he was rapidly acquiring proficiency in his chosen instrument. Soon he outgrew the teenage band and joined his cousin who led the Golden Rhythm Crooners, a band  that  backed  Dorothy Masuku.

A professional career beckoned when a certain Nayson Seckey came down from Salisbury (now Harare) with his All African Jazz Giants. Already established, he was hired by Kenneth Kaunda’s UNIP, later to become the ruling party in Zambia to do a series of fundraisers in the run up to independence  in 1964. 

They crossed the Zambezi with John in tow as part of the band with the winds of change blowing over the continent. It was upheaval and agitation for independence all over and the Rhodesian Federation was also breaking  up.

Those were halcyon days and after Zambia  they did Malawi where they had residency at the top end Coconut Groove Club run by a Greek  impressario. Throughout the 60s and 70s John was a troubadour living off music and doing gigs in East and Central Africa. His band was the top ensemble in the country and performed at state functions for presidents like Hastins Kamuzu Banda, Kwame Nkurumah, Milton Obote, Julius Nyerere and other big men. It was in Malawi in 1968 where John and Ray first met when the latter was on tour with Izintombi Ze Mquashiyo, exponents of mbaqanga music of that age. I am curious to know about  behind the scenes preparations for live shows to which John replies that he was taught discipline during the time he played with the late great rhumba artist Makiadi.

They would rehearse the whole day with a  few hours break in between and then perform until the early hours of the morning. For professional musicians, rehearsals are a 9-5 job and calls for absolute discipline which is why he was able to seamlessly fit in with Paul Simon who runs a tight ship.

After years away from home, John finally left Malawi in 1981 when the political situation and other domestic issues made his stay untenable. Back home he put together the band Kalahari, which did local gigs and was later introduced by George Phalhe to Hugh Masekela when he arrived in Botswana on exile.

Under his wing were the likes of Whyte Kgopo, Gino Maposa, Bully Tsienyane, Banjo Mosele, Lekofi Sejeso and Aubrey Oaki. They recorded the albums Working For A Dollar Bill and  the  much acclaimed Technobush  at Woodpecker  along the banks of the Notwane river when producer Stewart Levine shipped in a modern mobile studio  hence the title of the album.

Sonti was roped in as backing singer. The group ended up in London as a backing ensemble for Hugh when he left the country to escape Boer terrorist attacks. They went their separate  ways when Paul Simon came calling for the Graceland project.

Hugh and John then signed up for one of the most memorable journeys in the history of popular music. Uncle John cannot recall how many passports he has used up but he knows that at countless venues around the world, most in the audience first heard the name Botswana when he was introduced and went on his mesmerising  guitar solos. As they burst into boisterous laughter at recollecting some experience on tours, there is no doubt that Graceland reunited forever the brother and sister John and Sonti.  

 

Memorial Service

The beautiful, but precipitous roads weaving  high up the rolling, majestic hills of Mpumalanga guide us into Nelspruit and we find the  memorial  service,  held in a giant marquee in the 2010 World Cup stadium, is already underway.

This is Ray Phiri country and despite being a Thursday, the crowd is sizeable. Family, friends and musicians eulogise the fallen icon. What strikes me as  most remarkable is the number of  music industry  figures  who come up to  greet Uncle John.

The likes of Hotstix Mabuse, Peter Tladi, Blondie Makhene and others all  pay their respects. They are visibly pained when  they realise his eye sight is  receding. Equally  there are  some in the  audience  wearing the quizzical look of ‘who is this  geezer  that  is drawing so much attention’.

For the really inquisitive its left  to me and Sonti to explain who the geezer is. Stimela then go on stage to celebrate their founder, and as the familiar tracks waltz over the assembled mourners who have now risen to their feet  dancing, Ausi Lizzie guides  her husband up the stage where he does a jig before being handed a guitar to deliver a few melodies in remembrance of their times, John and Ray as brothers in arms.

By the  end of the memorial Uncle John has done interviews with local radio station SABC and ENCA television channels, all eager to hear him tell of his relationship with Ray. Late afternoon at the Emnotweni Sun after checking in, a porter says  to  me out of earshot, “I don’t know  this man but he must  be a legend”. I confirm that he is indeed a legend and to make it easier for the young man I in turn ask him if he knows the song Diamonds on the soles of her shoes and his eyes light up. Right, this legend played on such songs I tell him.

This place is far. Certainly far from Gaborone. When you are in Nelspruit you can drive to Maputo which is about 200km up the  mountains and down to the Indian ocean.

Over sundowners Thursday night  we mull the possibility of dashing in the morning to Lourenco Marques  as it was known during Portuguese colonial times. Uncle John tells us about Radio Lourenco Marques and how it introduced them to previously unheard  music from America and Britain.

Our impromptu adventure is aborted  because Sonti  did not  bring  her passport. Sonti dispatches Paul Simon a message about the day’s proceedings. Although the two had spoken after the news broke it was unclear  if  the wordsmith would  be able to make it to the funeral. We agree we had a long day  and call it a night.

 

21 July-Farwell Ray Phiri

There is something about countries forged in the crucible of war and revolution. They are big into symbols and ritual, especially when it comes to observing the death of icons.

Look around at the elaborate activities that accompany mourning and  funerals in every society whose liberation is signed  in blood. South Africa is  no different.

When Ray Phiri died, his place as a voice of emancipation and eloquent story teller of the centuries old  tragedy  that befell his land was  assured  when  he was granted

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a special provincial funeral.

Put in another way he was a hero of the revolution and in his home province,  he had to be accorded all the pomp and pageantry that went with such status. That is what we witnessed. The government took charge of every aspect of preparations. Friday we  follow Stimela  drummer Isaac Mnca Mtshali  out of the city  to  a place called  Crocodile Valley. In the car we we are  listening to Sonti’s solo album Back Where I Belong.

The location of Ray’s modest farm  house is amid the greenery and clean air. In many an interview he told of how he repaired here to escape the hustle and bustle of  the big  city. Behind us is a long cavalcade of state vehicles, flashing  blue  lights ahead  of the hearse. 

We are taking Ray home for the last  time. This ritual is the same in this part of the world. We arrive, prayers are proffered and police officers escort the casket into the lounge.

Its a small group of family and friends away from the public glare. We join the  grieving widow ensconced on a mattress, tending to  her daughter. Ausi Lizzie gathers the toddler, less than a year old and amuses her to gurgly giggles, oblivious to the sombre enormity of the occasion.

Ray leaves behind 10 offsprings. His first two wives pre deceased him and we are here to comfort his third wife, 25-year-old Rabelani whom he married in 2016 and her  toddler.

This being a state affair we have to be seated by 7am. We find our way to the  stadium after missing a turn which almost took us to Barberton. Just to make sure we have joined the turn pointed out  by another Samaritan, we enquire from  a man by the bus stop.

 Uncle John speaks to him in Siswati  but  the man replies  in Sepedi  and seems uncertain. There is something interesting about how  as  people of the same race we are able to distinguish each other even from a distance.

Up ahead of us some two young men are walking by the side of the road. Ausi Lizzie then says lets ask those Zimbabweans. And lo and behold they are Zimbos who confirm we are headed the right way. How could she tell? Unlike during the  memorial service two days ago, today is a more formal  affair.

The  big politicians are here and protocol  ensures everyone is seated accordingly. The politicians have pride of place in front of the stage. And why is this always the case? The pallbearers, in ceremonial  police uniform  escort  the casket into the marquee followed  by family.

There are lots more people from Joburg this morning and some of them are what in this country are known as celebrities. In fact some are celebrities for something intangible.

Thereare also ex celebrities who still carry  themselves  as  celebrities. It makes for fascinating observation. I am seated behind  an ex model  and  tv star  who was  huge in her  day. She still looks flawless, with the elegance that graced many  a fashion page.

Her name is Nakedi Ribane and  later I ask for a selfie, just like a groupie! Uncle John and Sonti are greeting and being greeted. Uncle John is big here as evidenced by the many people who still recognise him.

Those who lived overseas remind one another about someone they last met in London. A lady in front of us, a backing singer from what I surmise informs Sonti that London is no longer the same. Evidently she  has ditched London.

How can someone ditch London! I wish I lived in London my entire life.  The  ceremony  starts and is  interspersed with speeches and song. Besides  celebrities, there is another category of people  in this country called legends. Some of them are in attendance.

One of them is Dorothy Masuku  whom Uncle John goes to greet and they chat in Ndebele. The event is live on national television and the cameras pan across the mourners who all want their few seconds of fame. Babsey Mlangeni, from the legends contingent has the crowd in stitches  in his eulogy.

Pity he does not render Sala Emmah, his wonderful song from yesteryear. Then Uncle John  is invited  to  come  and speak and  I guide him to the stage but hand him to the broadcaster Tim Modise who is director of ceremonies. Stupid me I later realise when back home I get messages asking where I am because I have not appeared on tv. Everyone who escorted speakers to the stage made sure they stood alongside so as to appear on tv.

With hindsight I do not think modesty maketh a man. I opted to wait stage side and thus missed the tv opportunity. Sonti, who was outside, arrived in time before Uncle John completed his well received speech, focusing on their time with Graceland. Standing next to each other, the brother introduces the sister to  mourners and sketched a bit of their history together. How apt and fitting.

 

Uncle John the polyglot

People who are linguistically challenged are held in awe by polyglots. A polyglot refers to a person who is proficient in multiple languages. During the trip I asked Uncle John how many languages he  spoke and his answer was 17! I almost gasped  for breath.

How do I survive with only two and  another person is at home with 17? In the course of the trip, in interactions with different people ranging from traffic police to petrol attendants and fellow musicians and  of course the politicians,  the man spoke Zulu, Shona, Swati, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Ndebele and in a lift at  our hotel in Joburg, struck a conversation in Chewa. Before delivering the eulogy, he greeted mourners in Bemba and Venda among others. And we are not even  half way there. I won’t be surprised to discover he speaks Hebrew!

 

Bye Bye

The  heavy  emotional burden that weighs us down before interment of the deceased is lifted after we make peace with their parting and commit them to the soil. As we drive out of Nelspruit, the soundtrack back to Joburg and beyond is Graceland, The Harare Concert and in the vehicle I am driving two people  who were  intimately involved with the show.

We are having a wonderful road trip characterised by much laughter, hilarity and nostalgic yarns. This is a treasure  trove of musical history. In conversation, they unpack the  music, song by song and I now listen from a fresh perspective. 

Ray’s guitar, which straddles many of the tracks,  is more poignant and pronounced, playing off his collaborator Uncle John with his own distinctive and inimitable style that  took  a boy from Francistown to places in the world where he did not even know there were places.

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