Black guitarist pays heavy price for making music with Paul Simon
Johannesburg — The black South African guitarist who starred alongside American singer Paul Simon has returned home to charges he has betrayed the struggle against apartheid. For nearly two decades, Ray Phiri has given hard rocking performances of ``township jazz'' to sell-out crowds. As much as any other single performer, he popularized the quick-paced guitar beat that took root in the backyards and bistros of Soweto and other black communities.
But now, black militants apparently feel Mr. Phiri has sold out politically, and are determined to to keep his concert crowds down to a trickle.
Phiri's original political sin seems to have been his participation in Mr. Simon's recording of some cuts on the Graceland album inside South Africa, a violation of the UN-led ``cultural boycott'' against Pretoria.
But nothing succeeds like success: Grammy-winner Simon has since won the blessing of the banned African National Congress and, in effect, rendered the UN committee's grumblings meaningless.
Simon's other black musical partners on his Graceland album and subsequent world tour - the voice choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo - have taken relatively little political heat upon returning home.
Phiri's problem seems to have been a determination - in contrast to his often deadpan persona on stage - to confront black ``cultural'' militancy head on. During the Graceland tour, he was on occasion critical of the anti-apartheid protesters, suggesting that by targeting Graceland they were guilty of the same intolerance of which they accused the South African authorities.
Since returning, Phiri has refused to recant. Instead, he reminds detractors of his own long involvement in black community affairs, his devotion to promoting black township culture, and adds - as did Simon, upon first coming under political heat for Graceland - that politicians should best leave music to musicians.
Says a local recording executive specializing in avant-garde music: ``It appears that they [unidentified political militants] see this as arrogance. Mass democratic organizations do not bow down to stardom.''
The controversy surrounding Phiri came to a head early this month, when a joint Phiri-Ladysmith tour of Natal Province drew such sparse crowds that it was canceled. The first concert in the provincial capital of Durban drew only a few hundred people. The next appearance, in a nearby black township, fared worse.
Sources in the black music world say among the factors in the poor reception were rumors that the performers had accepted tour-sponsorship money from the state-run South African Transport Services, and that Phiri had once performed for South African troops. A black reporter following up the allegations said yesterday that neither seemed true.
The unflagging pressure seems to have thrown Phiri off guard. He is understood to have held private meetings with black political activists in a bid to clear the air, to explain his view that his music, Graceland included, should be seen as strengthening black pride and unity.
But so far, the controversy has survived. Phiri struck back this week in a front-page interview in City Press, a Johannesburg paper targeted at black readers. Saying he was tired of ``cheap politics,'' Phiri said he was disbanding the group, Stimela, with which he began recording almost exactly 20 years ago.
According to the interviewer, Phiri ``hinted that so-called progressive organizations'' were pressuring fans to shun his performances. He said an official at a black university where Phiri had been scheduled to perform received an anonymous note, ``saying that students had always regarded Stimela as a people's band until it `cajoled' with Paul Simon.'' Said Phiri: ``We then decided to cancel our shows there as we did not want unnecessary confrontation.''
``I have fought enough now,'' Phiri said. ``It is such a pity that we are playing right into the hands of the [South African political] system without even knowing.''
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.