THE BIG INTERVIEW: Still sharply in focus
One of the founder members of the celebrated music group Stimela, Ray Phiri talks about 'Graceland' and creative expression with Jackie May
When I called last week to set up an interview with musician and founder of Stimela, Ray Phiri, I warned him that the roads might be closed and the traffic unpredictable.
ANC supporters were set to march to the Goodman Gallery to demand the removal of The Spear on the day we had scheduled an interview. He knew nothing about the march.
"I am an artist. I try to keep my mind uncontaminated by these things."
When I meet with the 65-year-old Phiri in a downtown Johannesburg recording studio, it becomes clear immediately that he has thought about Brett Murray's painting The Spear. But he is careful when expressing his opinions.
"I will sound very biased because I am an artist and a cultural activist. When we are trying to find one another, we should try to make positive creativity. But Murray's painting has opened a wonderful debate. And we need to support our artists. Their role is to expose the contradictions in society."
I am not surprised by what sounds like sympathy and support for his fellow artist. Phiri is no stranger to controversy.
In the mid-198s, he joined local artists, including Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to collaborate with US musician Paul Simon. Simon broke the ANC's and UN's cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa to create his record-selling album, Graceland. To this day it's Oprah Winfrey's favourite.
"I'm still hurting inside," says Phiri, referring to the international reaction to the collaboration, and to the album.
"I had spoken to the UDF before we became involved. I thought this would have been related to the ANC. I didn't jump the fence."
As part of 25th anniversary celebrations of the album, American filmmaker Joe Berlinger made a documentary, Paul Simon: Under African Skies, about the album. With the film and planned international tour, the uproar about Graceland and the cultural boycott is being revisited.
Watching on screen how Simon discusses with Dali Tambo, the co-founder of Artists against Apartheid, it's hard not to presume that Simon is looking for forgiveness and for closure.
He says to Tambo: "It's been on my mind all the time."
Simon asks in the movie: "When the artist gets into some sort of disagreement with politics, why are the politicians designated to be the ones to tell us, the artists, what to do and we're supposed to follow - otherwise we're not good citizens and we're not good?"
The film, agrees Phiri, is Paul Simon's story.
"It's not a South African story. The other individuals haven't started telling their stories yet. All along it's been a one-sided story.
"Simon has his story to explain. But there are lots of gaps and holes. And these gaps are the South African stories. I'm not being disrespectful to Simon."
Despite the difficulties, making Graceland was a critical period for Phiri. "At the time South Africans weren't talking to each other. We had to deal with issues. But confusing things can create beautiful things. That's what happened with Graceland. It helped expose the evils of apartheid. It wasn't just about Simon coming to do this."
"I didn't feel that he used me. My music discovered him. He didn't discover me."
Even though some of the songs on Graceland, such as Crazy Love and Diamonds on the Soles of my Shoes, Phiri says are his songs, Simon doesn't credit him for these on the album.
"But it's a road I was prepared to walk and to travel on," says Phiri.
"I don't have hard feelings. Hatred can simply sap your energy. You miss your focus if you focus on the bad energy. I found my closure. We have spoken.
"I know I will one day use Simon to help me and I would like him to jump when I ask. He must not ask why. He must ask how high."
"And he will," says Phiri.
Under African Skies will open the 14th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival on June 7. For programme details visit www.encounters.co.za