Never use two words where one will do. That’s what they tell aspiring writers. So let’s use the South African word for “coal train” – stimela – and listen to Hugh Masekela as he tells the story of the men from Namibia and Malawi, from Zambia and Zimbabwe, from Angola and Mozambique and from all the hinterlands of Southern and Central Africa who ride that train.
This train doesn’t just carry coal. It also transports miners, the men who are conscripted to work on contract in the gold and mineral mines around Johannesburg. There they work 16 hours or more a day for almost no pay.
They think about their lands, and their herdsStimela lyrics, by Hugh Masekela
That were taken away from them
With the gun, and the bomb, and the teargas, the gatling and the cannon.
And when they hear that Choo-Choo train
A-chugging, and a pumping, and a smoking, and a pushing
They always cuss, and they curse the coal train
The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.
The song starts with the rapid tang, tang, tang of a cowbell – or is it a pickaxe striking metal-bearing rock? Almost immediately it develops the slow swaying beat of carriages rolling on smooth steel rails. We are riding with Hugh Masekela who tells us the tale of those dispossessed African men toiling deep down in the belly of the earth. His spoken words are supported on a suspension of soft organ chords and driven forward by pistons of subdued percussion. The seats are comfortable, the compartment snug, and the story is mesmerising.
Stimela is world music in the truest sense. Although born of African parentage it can be appreciated all over the globe. The sax and trumpet solos mark it out as a jazz piece but it’s radio-friendly jazz, the kind that would provoke no objections from either punk-loving teenagers or haughty fans of classical music. It sweeps away all criticism with its easy rhythm, tuneful melodies and exuberant musicianship. It even spells out the message in both English and one of the regional languages of Southern Africa.
Hugh Masekela was a trumpeter, singer and composer and all of those talents are evident on Stimela. On this song, though, he goes one station further down the line by adding the sounds of the old steam locomotives: the chugging of the engine, the rattle of the wheels, the sudden hiss of escaping steam and the shrill cry of the whistle …