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The Passing of Two Masters

by FOH Staff • in
  • January 2018
  • On the Digital Edge
• Created: January 16, 2018
In Memoriam

Somehow, 2017 brought the loss of so many legendary and influential musicians. Among those taken from us were South African guitarist/vocalist/writer/producer, Ray Phiri, and Cameroon’s celebrated guitarist/writer/arranger, Vincent Nguini. It was my immense honor and distinct artistic pleasure to have worked literally hundreds of shows with these gentlemen while both were members of Paul Simon’s touring band. Ray joined the aggregation for the 1987-89 Graceland tours after co-arranging and co-producing much of the landmark, scene-changing Graceland album. Vincent joined the tour in 1990 after collaborating heavily on what may be Paul Simon’s most intricate and luxuriant musical endeavor, The Rhythm of the Saints.

My 21-year tenure as FOH mixer for Paul Simon began just after completing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love Tour” at the end of 1986. The upcoming Graceland tour was scheduled to open in Rotterdam at the end of January 1987. Backline techs Andy Forster and Dikka Jones, Britannia Row systems engineer Dick Webber, monitor engineer Jerry Fradley and I convened at John Henry Studios in London just after Christmas. Our crew’s leader was Marc Silag, a true Renaissance man who somehow managed to be part production manager, part tour manager and Mr. Simon’s full time guitar tech. We all shared a strong love and respect for the Graceland songs that had so quickly infected and affected the world music community. We were excited to be part of what promised to be a tour of huge significance — artistically, socially and politically.

It was impossible to know what to expect when the band arrived a few days later. I certainly had no previous experience mixing mbaqanga music. None of us, except Marc Silag, had even been in the studio for any of the recording sessions. The band was a Pan-African amalgamation assembled from the touring bands of the other Graceland revue headliners, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. Also included were three of the now-legendary South African musicians who were so prominently featured on the Graceland recordings.

Members of the band included instrumental players Ray Phiri, guitars; John Selolwane, guitars; Bakithi Kumalo, bass guitar; Isaac Mtshali, drums; Tony Cedras, keyboards; Isaac Asante, percussion; Francis Fuster, percussion; Barney Rachebane, saxes; and Mike Rose, trumpet. Bambi Fazarkerley, Nomsa Caluza and Sonti Mdebele lent their voices. Hugh Masekela fronted the show for three songs, as did Miriam Makeba. Hugh played in the horn section during the other parts of the show. The 10-voice South African a cappella ensemble, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who also performed three solo songs, completed the lineup.

‡‡         Pure Joy

As it turned out, nothing could have prepared us for what we heard when the band started to play “Boy In The Bubble” at the first full-band rehearsal session. If there was ever a moment of pure joy in my life as a mixer, it was in that drafty rehearsal room in cold, snowy London. Tony Cedras deftly squeezed out the accordion intro, and then Bakithi Kumalo made his old Washburn fretless bass speak those signature lines from that amazing song. Those of us listening were hypnotized, helplessly drawn into this amazing musical world of intricate melodies and countermelodies played over multiple layers of complex rhythms. Later, we all agreed that we had mutually shared in that emotionally and artistically transformative moment on that initial rehearsal day. It was definitely a musical epiphany for the non-Africans in the room.

Mr. Simon was always the boss, but Ray Phiri was definitely the musical patriarch when Paul was not in the room. Ray’s band in South Africa, Stimela, was extremely influential, and Mr. Phiri commanded immense respect among his fellow musicians. We all came to share the same respect for this quiet, purposeful man who had magic in his hands, love in his heart and joy in his rubber band dancing legs. His contributions to the arrangements for the songs performed by Paul, Hugh and Miriam were inestimable. His musical taste and knowledge were always judiciously displayed when solicited. His sense of musical direction was impeccable. And his infectious smile onstage could, and did, light up a stadium.

Ray was always very patient with me as I learned to reproduce, interpret and present the music being created at rehearsals. He helped me hone my efforts in capturing the life and energy within mbaqanga and the other tribal music genres being performed. He was always pleased to offer his musical advice and counsel. In return, he knew my door was always open and that I wanted to learn what mixing approach made this complex and lyrically beautiful music truly come to life. Ray and I formed a great bond of friendship, trust and respect early on, and that relationship continued all through the Paul Simon tours of the 1980s and 1990s.

The Graceland tour was a triumph in so many ways. Ray Phiri was most certainly able to claim an important share in those successes. Ray’s position of prominence among the musicians was indisputable, and his mentorship was indispensible. In my box of memories, I have carefully placed that slice of professional heaven that came from mixing the irresistible, interleaved guitar melodies created by Ray Phiri and John Selolwane on the Graceland stages around the world. Any guitar player, myself included, would have been completely mesmerized by the notes, the colors, and the feelings that leapt from the strings on those two guys’ Stratocasters. Ray’s influence guided me to a new place as a musician and a mixer. For that I will always be grateful.

‡‡         Gob-Smacked

Being introduced to, and then becoming immersed in, the South African approach to singing, playing and arranging was world-changing enough for one lifetime. However, the earth moved again in August of 1990. Earlier that summer, I had the opportunity to hear a preliminary mix of the song “Proof” from Paul Simon’s soon-to-be-released Rhythm of the Saints album. I had asked Marc Silag if there was a “You Can Call Me Al” equivalent on the new record. He replied that there was not an obviously accessible “hit” on Saints but the closest thing may have been “Proof.” I sat back in open-mouthed incredulity as I listened to the amazing guitar talent from Cameroon, Vincent Nguini, spin his elaborate tapestry of notes and rhythms that supported Paul’s consummately literate lyrics. Dumbfounded and gob-smacked, I just listened as new creative doors opened in my mind.

If a guitar could smile, it would have done so in the hands of Vincent Nguini. Vincent was a quiet, dignified man. He always spoke most eloquently on his instrument. His raw talent was immense. His sense of time and the rhythm patterns he created were enigmatic and totally captivating. Everyone welcomed his musical insights/instincts each time his opinion was sought. The crew became instant fans from the very first day of rehearsals at the Westhampton Beach Police Academy. This seemingly unlikely rehearsal venue was located in the rather affluent summer getaway community of Westhampton Beach, NY. Billy Joel, who also owned property in eastern Long Island, had rehearsed at the sound stage at this police training facility earlier in the year, and his production had passed that information along to the Paul Simon organization.

We ended up spending three months in that big room while Paul and the band slowly and carefully built the presentation that became the “Born At The Right Time Tour” (1990-92). That tour heavily featured the songs from the Rhythm of the Saints album that was released in the autumn of 1990. It was immediately apparent that the foundation for the majority these new works was the melodies and rhythms coming from l’Grand Orange, Vincent’s hollowbody electric guitar. In building the various mixes, my first question was always, “What is Vincent doing?” I don’t remember needing to learn how to correctly count an 11/8 measure before. There were indeed many odd time signatures, extra measures and added beats in several songs from the new album being rehearsed. And everything had been built out from the riffs and rhythm patterns that sprang from Vincent’s incredibly unique and nimble creative imagination.

‡‡         Another All-Star Lineup

The “Born At The Right Time Tour” presented a star-studded, 18-member band: Paul Simon, guitars and vocals; Vincent Nguini, guitars; Ray Phiri, guitars; John Selolwane, guitars; Richard Tee, keyboards; Tony Cedras, keyboards and accordion; Armand Sabal-Lecco, bass guitar; Steve Gadd, drums; Dom Chacal, percussion; Sidinho Moreira, percussion; Mingo Araujo, percussion; Cyro Baptista, percussion; Michael Brecker, saxes and EWI; Chris Botti, trumpets and flugelhorn; Barney Rachabane, saxes and pennywhistle; Julia Waters, vocals; Maxine Waters, vocals; and Oren Waters, vocals.

This band was so talented that we often felt that having all this creativity concentrated on one stage might have caused the Earth’s axis to perceptively shift from the imbalance caused elsewhere. In particular, Vincent’s individual contributions to the five or six songs in the set from the Graceland album added new layers of contrapuntal complexity to songs like “I Know What I Know” or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” The combination of Vincent Nguini, Ray Phiri and John Selolwane produced truly awesome guitar arrangements that were at all times rare, distinctive and, sadly, now unrepeatable. Paul’s older songs from the pre-Graceland era were similarly redefined and reborn with the amazing Afro-Brazilian flavors taking the spotlight.

‡‡         So Long, Ray and Vincent

The Graceland Tour and the “Born At The Right Time Tour” were the mostly challenging artistic projects of my career. I will carry the personal rewards and the fond memories with me always. The lessons I learned from Ray Phiri and Vincent Nguini have been of inestimable value in my subsequent mixing career. As a result of their friendship and mentorship, I became a far better mix engineer. It was an honor to know, to work with, and to be enchanted by both of these exemplary musicians. It seemed that the universe must have expanded a bit to accommodate their unbounded talents while they lived and created such magic for us all. It’s just a bit smaller now.

Safe Travels, Ray and Vincent!

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