By Njabulo Majola
Stimela never left me, even through the lost years at a former Model C school where teachers trid their damnedest to beat the black out of us. I always had a cassette or two, as if to ground me and remind me of my very first moment of black consciousness. Indeed, when I came to Johannesburg to further my studies and I lived with my uncles, through whose veins runs music, I was encouraged to start collecting music. Stimela were one the very first CD's I was proud to own myself. Over the years, I have, like many I am sure, subsequently had to buy Stimela albums numerous times (especially the great compilation Steam Tracks) as all copies miraculously grew wings and flew out the window, especially after my friends visited. I don't regret having to buy that album at least 4 times, it is worth every rand.
More recently, when I Dj, as I sometimes do at selected Afro- and contemporary jazz gigs, my playlist always includes Stimela. No self respecting Dj would leave them out.
I salute the bravery of the band Stimela that Ray led. Their lyrics never shied away from the horrors that Apartheid visited on black bodies daily. Their music bears witness. Yes, Stimela's music provided some relief, a balm if you will, to sooth black people from the constant dehumanisation and humiliation that the Apartheid regime so cruelly effected through its inhumane policies. Ray was a prolific songwriter and together with band mates such as the late Nana Coyote, Stimela's lyrics on many of their songs are truly reflective of the South Africa that they, as a black band experienced. They demonstrated black excellence and were consummate musicians through strenuous circumstances and amid constant threats of arrest and worse from the Apartheid government.
There is a raucous freedom in Stimela's music, in-spite of the serious lyrical content. It's as if Ray and his bandmates found and expressed their freedom through the music, a freedom that Apartheid denied them so vehemently.
So many of Stimela's songs are notable, and more knowledgeable people have delved deeply into the songwriting prowess of Ray, Nana and the rest of the group. For me, at the moment, the song "What's going on (in the land of plenty)" is first on my playlist. I am haunted by the relevance and forcefulness of question in the song "What is going on?", to which Ray continues to sing as in if response, "the young generation wants to know". He concludes, "there is no justice... in the land of plenty". It could have been written yesterday.
Credit must be given to the talented crew at Bomb Productions, for ensuring that Stimela's Zwakala (Come to me) became a household staple, as it was beamed almost nightly for many years as the theme song of the award -winning drama Zone 14.
You can watch the video of "Whispers in the Deep" below:
Distant sleep right in your eye
The face is tasty food for rotting flies
Call me angry, call me mad
A soul that whispers in the deep
But echoes all throughout the land
Reaches out to find a hand
But finds an amputated stump
That tells the story of the lonely
And beats the rhythm of the free
Whose songs are as truthful as a dream
Flows as steady as a stream
A stream of knowledge and of pain
Of one whose thoughts begin to wane
Allow the sleepy to retire
Because their love blows out the fire
I can see your pointed fingers
Your eyes binoculars
I’m inspired, I cannot understand hate
The song ends with the following lines:
Ungahlebi, speak out your mind
Don’t be afraid, don’t whisper in the deep
Speak out your mind, stand up
The song remains relevant today, like it was written yesterday.
Now that Ray's physical being is no more, his music will live on for ages. He was a musician par excellent, a multi talented instrumentalist and vocalist. He was our own griot. I salute you Bab' Ray. May your spirit soar.