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Guitarist Ray Phiri, featured on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland,’ dead at 70

Seen here Aug. 16, 1991, Paul Simon, center, with lead guitarist Ray Phiri, left, and actor-comedian Chevy Chase on the saxophone in New York's Central Park. | AP

JOHANNESBURG — 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 of cancer Wednesday at 70.

Stimela’s best-known albums include “Fire, Passion and Ecstasy” and “Look, Listen and Decide,” and Phiri contributed as a guitarist in the 1980s to Simon’s “Graceland” album, which evolved from Simon’s interest in indigenous South African music.

Phiri, a vocalist and guitarist known for his versatility in jazz fusion, indigenous South African rhythms and other styles, received many music awards in his home country.

“He was a musical giant,” President Jacob Zuma said. “This is indeed a huge loss for South Africa and the music industry as a whole.”

Political parties also expressed condolences, saying Phiri’s songs resonated among many South Africans, particularly during the era of white minority rule that ended in 1994.

“An immensely gifted composer, vocalist and guitarist, he 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.

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said many people grew up with Phiri’s music. “In the 1970s, Phiri’s music spoke to issues that are still affecting our people today,” the party said.