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 July 12 at a hospital in the northeastern city of Nelspruit. He was 70.
Mr. Phiri had been diagnosed with lung cancer two months ago, a family spokesman said.
A vocalist and guitarist, Mr. Phiri was known for his versatility in jazz fusion and indigenous South African rhythms. “He was a musical giant,” President Jacob Zuma said in a statement. “This is indeed a huge loss for South Africa and the music industry as a whole.”
His songs resonated among many South Africans, particularly during the era of white minority rule that ended in 1994. Mr. Phiri “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.
Stimela’s best-known albums include the 1980s records “Fire, Passion and Ecstasy” and “Look, Listen and Decide.” Phiri also contributed as a guitarist to Simon’s 1986 “Graceland,” which evolved from Simon’s interest in South African music, and a follow-up record four years later, “The Rhythm of the Saints.”
Raymond Chikapa Enock Phiri was born on March 23, 1947, in what is now the eastern South African province of Mpumalanga, and grew up near Nelspruit. He was 4 when his father died, and Mr. Phiri’s mother remarried, to a troubadour from Malawi. Mr. Phiri soon took up the guitar.
As a teenager he played with Jabavu Queens, an outfit that practiced the mbaqanga style of Zulu-inspired dance music, before joining the Cannibals, a hit 1970s soul group.
According to the reference site AllMusic, the band released 29 gold singles and three gold albums until singer Jacob Radebe died in 1979, leading Mr. Phiri to strike out on his own and form Stimela.
The band soon became known for its willingness to tackle political subjects in songs such as “Highland Drifter,” which was released around the time of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 and banned by the South African Broadcasting Corp.
Mr. Phiri was married at least three times. A complete list of survivors was not available.
While Mr. Phiri said that “Graceland” brought world attention to South Africa, he told the Johannesburg Sunday Times in 2011 that there was “bad blood” between him and Simon.
“He never gave me credit on the album for the songs I wrote, and financially we hardly got any royalties,” he said. “But maybe I wouldn’t have been able to handle all that wealth. I sleep at night, I have my sanity and I enjoy living. The big rock ’n’ roll machine did not munch me.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries