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Legendary muso Ray Phiri honoured by Unisa

The late Ray Chikapa Phiri, internationally acclaimed doyen of South African music, and founder and leader of one of South Arica’s peerless musical groups, Stimela, was awarded an honorary doctorate posthumously by Unisa at a graduation ceremony on Friday 12 April 2024.


Dr Thabo Mbeki (centre), Unisa Chancellor, flanked by Prof Puleng LenkaBula (second from right), Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and Dr Dan Mosia (second from left), Unisa Council Chairperson, with members of Ray Phiri’s family who attended the ceremony, including sons Akhona Phiri (back, second from left), who spoke on behalf of the family, and Pholo Phiri (back, far right)

The Council of Unisa unanimously agreed to confer the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Music (Honoris Causa, Posthumously) to Phiri in recognition of the impact he made with his outstanding contributions and singular accomplishments in music.

"The late Ray Phiri lifted up many of us," said Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor. "His songs spoke of the times, the aspirations of overcoming apartheid, the aspirations of speaking truth to power. Let us also celebrate him when he analysed what happens when there is trouble in the land of plenty; whether in the world, or in our country."

Ray Phiri’s son, Akhona Phiri, spoke movingly on behalf of the Phiri family

The jazz maestro’s son, Akhona Phiri, delivered a message of appreciation on behalf of the Phiri family. "This is an extremely great honour for our family," he said. "The last seven years since dad’s passing have been very difficult. We lost our patriarch, many people lost a friend, others lost a mentor. We have been blessed to meet so many people that he touched in different ways."

He continued to say that Ray’s highest level of education was grade 9, yet he was extremely intelligent. "When asked by his teachers at school what course he wanted to pursue in life, he always said he wants to be a performer – and they thought it was a waste since he was so bright."

Akhona commented that awarding his father a Doctorate of Philosophy was appropriate, since Phiri senior was an avid reader, and his house was filled with books. He also instilled this love of reading in his children.

"My father’s dream was to impact people through music," continued Akhona. "One of my favourite quotes of his is that he said ‘make sure that your art outlives you. Make music that matters. And, indeed, our father made music that mattered when the country was going through a most depressing phase."

During the ceremony, Unisa’s academic leadership on stage and audience members were brought to their feet as they danced to recordings of some of Phiri’s musical masterpieces.

About Ray Phiri

Ray Chikapa Phiri distinguished himself as a talented, hardworking artist, lead guitarist and songwriter extraordinaire who produced a vast body of work during his lifetime which touched many lives, contributed to social cohesion as well as impacted on societal and cultural matters locally and internationally. His musical catalogue, spanning from the 1970s to the time of his passing on 12 July 2017. is almost unmatched.

He was highly conscious of current issues, including the socio-political conditions in the country, which spurred him to compose such politically conscious tracks as Highland Drifter (1974) and the evergreen masterpiece, Whispers in the Deep/Phinda Mzala (1986), both of which were banned by the apartheid regime. His musical prowess caught the attention of American artist Paul Simon who, in 1986, invited him to collaborate with him and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the recording of the international acclaimed album, Graceland.

During his lifetime, Ray Chikapa Phiri received several acknowledgements for his outstanding body of work and contribution in the music industry, including the South African National Order of Ikhamanga (2011) and the South African Music Lifetime Achievement Award (2012). In 2024, Dr Tlou Setumu honoured him with a posthumous biography titled Singa Jindi Majita…! – Struggle and Musical Train Journey of Ray Phiri, named after one of his masterful music compositions.

* By Philip van der Merwe, Editor, Department of Institutional Advancement, with additional reporting by the Unisa Media Office

** Photography by Shooheima Champion, Unisa Multimedia Centre

Publish date: 2024/04/15

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