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Despite Losing Eyesight, Phiri Still Strums

Elliot Kazembe Phiri now uses his instincts to strum a guitar after losing eyesight. Image by The Citizen Bulletin

BY NGQWELE DUBE | @rasmthembo | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | MAR 7, 2022

Playing the lead guitar has become second nature for Phiri, and losing eyesight has not stopped him from taking up the instrument to entertain his audience.

BULAWAYO (The Citizen Bulletin) — Despair is part of life, but when one bets his future against all odds, it’s an impervious game.

Fiercely but wisely, Elliot Kazembe Phiri tells a story of how he has succeeded against all odds as he sat  on a bamboo chair in front of a band and improvising as he goes along; one cannot tell that the singer suffers vision loss.

Phiri says he uses instinct as he strums the guitar, composing lyrics as he goes along.

Phiri showed he is yet to lose touch with his guitar during a pre-Valentine jazz concert at Country City in Northvale last month.

The Nguboyenja-born strummer suffered from cataracts that caused him to lose sight in his left eye.

His right eye has partial sight and can only see objects at close range.

With six decades of experience in the music industry, the 77-year-old Phiri says lack of sight is not affecting how he handles the guitar.

It’s second nature to him, he says.

“Yes, I have lost much of my sight but I can even play with my eyes closed because I now know where to strum once the guitar is in my hands.”
Elliot Kazembe Phiri

In 2019, Phiri suffered a stroke that affected his left hand and kept him off the stage for the past two years.

His performance at Country City on February 13 was his first in two years having last played with Jeys Marabini at the Spring Feelings Jazz concert early 2019.

Phiri says the performance marks his return to the stage, and is ready to perform on a regular basis.

While Phiri has played with several bands and different genres, his main forte is jazz, having been influenced by the likes of the late Willie Msarurwa and Spokes Mashiyane in the late 50s.

Phiri would see the musos playing mainly at Big Bhawa in Makokoba when he was growing up in Nguboyenja.

He then decided to take up the guitar at the then Mthwakazi Youth Centre.

Being comfortable with guitar at an early age, Phiri saw himself hosting solo shows at Stanley Hall where he would fill up the auditorium.

He then teamed up with Amos Ncube (bass) and Josphat Sibanda on drums to form the Brightons, and later on, the Big Brain Quartet that performed regularly at Stanley Hall.

Phiri was to later team up with his brother Killer, who plays the bass, and decided to explore opportunities around the country in 1967.

Their first stop was Gweru, then Chiredzi before going to Harare, Bindura, Marondera and Mvuma.

Phiri says they suffered racial prejudice during the colonial era in their search for stardom, but soldiered on.

“We were once threatened with arrest after our contract was cancelled by a new manager at the RISCO (Zisco) as he felt we were being paid too much,” he says.

“We stuck to our guns and only agreed after we requested a one month’s notice after which we left.”

Phiri has played with some of the top jazz acts in the country. He was once part of the Cool Crooners, and played alongside Paul Lunga in Jazz Impacto in the late 90s where they recorded two albums, and had his own compositions included.

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He played with Jeys Marabani in early 2000 where they recorded two albums, one being recorded with Stimela legend, Nana Coyote.

Phiri has also been passing his talent to youngsters such as Mthabisi Moyo who was with Marabini but is now based in South Africa.

“I still have it in me to keep on playing. I have recovered from the stroke and if there are more shows that pop up, I am ready,” Phiri declares.