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Graceland guitarist Ray Phiri dies at 70

The South African musician also founded the anti-apartheid band Stimela

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Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images

Ray Phiri, the South African musician known for having backed Paul Simon on Graceland and founded the anti-apartheid band Stimela, died Wednesday of lung cancer at the age of 70, according to the New York Times.

Phiri formed Stimela in the early ‘80s out of a soul band he had previously co-founded, the Cannibals, the decade before. Stimela’s sound combined R&B and jazz influences with traditional South African styles, and its lyrics addressed the cruel realities of apartheid; some of the band’s songs were banned on South African radio.

Phiri contributed to some of the most famous tracks on Simon’s Graceland, including playing guitar on “Graceland,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “You Can Call Me Al,” “Under African Skies,” and “Crazy Love, Vol. II,” also receiving a co-arranging credit for the latter three.

Simon honored Phiri on his website, writing, “He was a beautiful, masterful guitarist and an inventive musician. He will be remembered as a patriot who used his music to fight apartheid and brought that message to the world. His contribution to Graceland was immense, and I am grateful and honored to have worked with him.”

The African National Congress, South Africa’s current ruling party, also remembered the late musician, sharing in a statement: “Ray Phiri was a voice for the voiceless and a legend of our time. An immensely gifted composer, vocalist, and guitarist, he breathed consciousness and agitated thoughts of freedom through his music.”

The tribute continues, “The indelible contribution Ray Phiri has made to the tapestry that is South African arts and culture will never be forgotten. May his life’s work forever remain an inspiration to generations of artists who would emulate his example of using the arts to effect change and inspire hope amongst his people.”