By Ben Kangwa
For close to 50 years, he was known to the listeners first as “Matinko” and later “Matty P”, the fun loving, energetic voice on the Zambia Broadcasting Services (ZBS) English Service. But to his dearest family and friends, he was Matteo Phiri, who had a dream – a dream that one day he would dedicate his life to informing and educating his listeners through entertainment. A dream that one bright day, he would own and run his own radio station. A wish fulfilled in the establishment of 5Fm Radio after he set sail on a familiar broadcast voyage.
Along the way, he would face unpredictable winds, rough waves and uncompromising storms. With patience as his virtue, he would carefully steer the ship with a sharp eye avoiding the unseen obstacles to safe landing at the final port of call on Longolongo Road.
I met “Matinko” through radio as a young secondary school student like many others of my generation. I listened attentively to the “Schweppes Show” co-presented by “Matteo Phiri” (as he was known then) and Mannasseh Phiri. It was all about language, chemistry, jokes, laughter and sighs….. all well scripted. The other programmes were “Bata Spotlight and Pick-A-Lot”. I would eventually present the Pick-A-Lot under the tutelage of “Matty P” years after he had left ZBS.
I talked jazz, a subject he loved so very much. My other elder brother Dr. Mannasseh Phiri would talk rhumba and world music. Together, we would spend long weekend hours enjoying South African Township jazz, contemporary jazz, the big band jazz, jazz funk and smooth jazz. If not, we would spend time trying to decipher some phrases in rhumba sung in Lingala or French – languages we were really not good at, save for some help from friendly forces who were familiar with the two languages.
As the only young broadcaster of the two, I would be cross-examined on some recorded programme I had presented on radio and given guidance on how pronounce certain word, how to write a radio script how to compile genres of music or how to time music at the beginning of the first groove and all the tricks that a young broadcaster should utilize on the air. Such was the test I had to undergo before I was baptised in the league of extra-ordinary gentlemen of broadcasters.
We became a broadcast family and over the years lived through some of the most creative moments of Matteo on radio. I have not been shy to “gang up” a few individuals who, in the course of the new broadcast age interacted with Matty P.
Take, for instance Dr. Mannasseh Phiri, a Radio and television personality, a Health Practitioner and a HIV/AIDS Activist who says,
“I met Matthew Phiri(then) in 1966 or 67 sometime – through an ex-schoolmate who had just joined ZBS. They shared a house # 9 Kalulu Street in Libala Stage 3. He had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia. I immediately became a fan of this sharp knowledgeable DJ and during school holidays, I attended “live”radio shows he hosted and called in to his “call-in”shows. His mastery of Soul Music, Pop Music and Jazz was only matched by his influential command of the English language.”
Matthew Phiri stimulated in Mannasseh Phiri great love for music and radio broadcasting that in July, 1970, when Mannasseh completed “A levels”, he no longer wanted to study medicine. “ I wanted to be a radio announcer like Matthew Phiri – who had now become a very close family friend, if not a brother. In September 1970, I joined the Zambia Broadcasting Services as an announcer and was placed under Matthew to “shadow” him on and off air and learn the ropes. I was in high heaven learning from the best!”, he adds.
Mannasseh says Matthew set very high standards of quality, accurate and informed broadcasting for himself and all around him – researching his subjects thoroughly and scripting every word he would speak on air.
It should be remembered that Matthew played Soul and Pop music but clearly loved Jazz most. He actually played a jazz guitar like a virtuso – and would comfortably take over lead guitar when invited by bands like the Broadway Quintet, Lusaka Radio Band and Afromods.
His sense of humor was unmatched even in those early days in the 70s. He told jokes on and off air so comfortably. “He changed his radio name from Maththew (pronounced ‘Methew’) to Matteo (pronounced ‘Ma-te-yo). He became “Matteo the Phiri Boy”. In a snazzy fast-talking show we did together in 1973-1974 – the Scweppes Show, I was Mannasseh the other Phiri Boy”, proudly says Mannasseh.
From the Phiri Boy, he became “Matty Nko”for a while before finaslly settling on “Matty P’. Looking back, sometimes he took his sense of humor to the edge. He tested and dared the system, for example when he opened his shows with “Mamas and Papas, lock up your daughters! Matteo the Phiri Boy is in back in town!” Only he could get away with gimmicks like that. He was the “Swing King! The musical host who loves you most!” And at one time, he boldly called himself “The Godfather of Radio” and no-one disputed.
Matteo’s dream was to own his own radio station one day. Says Mannasseh, “He was able to finally achieve that with the opening of 5Fm…the Happy Day Station…. Zambia’s first and so far, only adult contemporary music station”.
He believed and really lived that radio is about spreading happiness. With 5Fm, Matteo had finally arrived. He could play all the jazz and all the rhumba he liked.
Mannasseh concludes by saying that from Matteo, he learnt to love and appreciate jazz music, while from Mannasseh, Matteo learned to appreciate rhumba music.
“He was the last one of the true generation of veteran radio presenters of an era who was still standing. A true icon. Radio in Zambia will never be the same again.”
Former Zambia Television (ZTV) personality, former lecturer, Department of Mass Communication (UNZA) and former Managing Editor at the Zambia Daily Mail, Leonard Kantumoya says for him, Matteo Phiri was the first superstar DJ in Zambia.
“His Spinout Show in the mid- 60s was what killed my earlier ambition to be a pilot and ignited my desire to be a broadcaster. Matteo’s insight into musicians and their music was incredible. He was a consummate broadcaster. He also possessed a great sense of humor which found expression in his trademark one-liners and clean but funny jokes. We mourn the loss of a broadcast colossus whose memory will last a long while.”
As for Mike Daka, CEO and Chairman of Breeze Fm Radio, former Director of the Zambia Institute of Mass Communication and former Director of the Zambia News Agency (ZANA), Matty P found his purpose in life by using radio to inform and entertain people for a very long time. He also sadly adds, “His death marks the end of an era of natural broadcasters who used their talents to make radio a popular people’s medium of communication.”
While Edem Djokotoe, Journalist and Media Consultant, reminisces, “I heard about Matteo Phiri at least three years before I actually met him and to be honest, I was not disappointed and that is because he was as irrelevant in the flesh and he was on radio as the gregarious, mischievous host of the “Pick-A-Lot” Show. He would always start his show with a warning, “Mothers, Matty P is in town, so lock up your daughters!” And then he would go into his own personal archives and share some choice anecdotes about people he knew, places he had been to, events he had witnessed or things he had heard. It was often difficult to know what was true and what he had made up just for the laughs.” Not that he cared. He would get always get away with it with the aside, ”Don’t argue – you were not there!”
Former ZNBC Director-General Chibamba Kanyama says Matteo Phiri lived by his calling – broadcasting to masses using radio as a medium. Chibamba further says Matteo never thought television had the power of creativity suitable for mass entertainment. He says Matteo adopted a style of communication that worked well for him and his fans. He was original, agile and flexible.
At personal level Chibamba adds, ”He taught me that paying attention to little things in life shaped a man. His shoes were often times extremely immaculate: even in July when Zambia is windy and dusty. I decided to learn from him and have never looked back.” He concludes by saying, “I urge all those that worked and lived with Matty P to learn from him the principles of independence, hard work and fun.
Vernon Mwaanga, a former Minister of Information, a former Editor-in-Chief of the Times of Zambia and former CEO of Lightfoot Advertising says Matteo was a consumate professional media practitioner who dedicated his life to electronic journalism.
He adds that Matteo believed in true values of his profession to inform, entertain and educate in a fair and balanced manner.
Mwaanga says Matteo had infectious sense of humor which he put to good use and which won him the acclaim of many admirers through- out Zambia. It was working for Lightfoot Advertising Company, which later became Fleetfoot Advertising Company that once again gave him prominence to present the much anticipated “Pick-A-Lot” programme on behalf of the National State Lotteries Board.
“He would crack jokes like ‘Our correspondent in Chipata has reported that a snake bit a whitch-doctor and the snake has died!” Mwaanga adds.
The former Minister of Information also says, “Matteo belonged to a legendary league of broadcasters of yesteryears who set the bar high for objective and entertaining broadcast journalism in Zambia. My hope is that there will be a new crop of broadcast journalists who will emulate his quest for journalism excellence and take it to a higher level.”
Matteo was put to rest on 23rd December, 2015 at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Lusaka. There had been a mixture of jazz (Hugh Masekela’s Nomali and Frank Sinatra’s I did My Way) and some Catholic gospel tunes by the Catholic Women’s League Good Shepard Choir both at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and the cemetery. To spice it all, dances from the Ngoni dancers at the entrance of the church and at the cemetery added to a good Matty P’s celebration of his life. A fitting send-off and tribute to the legacy of Matteo Phiri, the great extra-ordinary electronic journalist, who brought laughter to the homes of many adoring Zambians.
The writer is a broadcast journalist/Media consultant