1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

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Archive for the tag “Stimela”

Stimela (Coal Train) – Hugh Masekela

Stimela – Hugh Masekela

Stimela – Hugh Masekela

‘Stimela’ was a trademark song of Hugh Masekela. While he had success with songs like ‘Grazing In The Grass’ (which topped the US Singles charts), it is this one that seems to stick to Bra Hugh’s memory more than any other. And there’s a reason for that. This was a powerful song about the trains that were used to transport men from all over southern Africa to work in the mines in South Africa.

The translation of the lyrics reflect anger at the way these men were treated, having been ‘forcibly removed’ from where they last saw their loved ones and made to work ‘Sixteen hours or more a day for almost no pay/Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth’. The men come to ‘curse, curse the coal train/The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.

There are many versions of the song around. There is an early 1974 version which has no English introduction and starts off slowly and quietly but builds with the anger of the song, a heavy funk stew of growing discomfort between the instruments as the song builds and grows and which, surprisingly, doesn’t feature a trumpet for which Hugh was famous. Then there are numerous live versions, some of which have a greater jazz feel to them with Hugh’s trumpet featuring prominently. The song, it seems, has been on as much of a journey as the train of which it speaks, taking in all the twists and turns of the railways track, but it never loses its anger or meaning.

‘Stimela’ is an important historical document about a practice that continues even in these days after apartheid. It is a song that has endured and will endure for years to come.

Where to find it:
Liberation: The Best Of – Hugh Masekela (1988), Jive, HOP222 (UK release)

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Unfinished Story – Stimela

Unfinished Story – Stimela

Unfinished Story – Stimela

In case you din’t know it, Stimela means train as is steam train or high speed train or Thomas the Tank Engine train. However the Stimela that made the ‘Unfinished Story’ song were neither steam nor high-speed and none of them were called Thomas. One of them was called Ray and his surname was Phiri and he became a stalwart of the SA music scene and was one of those who was invited by Paul Simon to play on the ‘Graceland’ album.

Listening to ‘Unfinished Story’ one can’t easily make the leap to ‘Graceland’, well not from a musical sound point of view, but from a polished and accomplished musical point of view it would make sense. ‘Unfinished Story’ does not have a particularly ‘black South African’ sound to it as it could easily have rubbed shoulders with the jazzy Americans of the late 70’s early 80s such as Weather Report and Herbie Hancock and what the soulful funky chaps like Marvin Gaye and Rick James were doing around that time. The song mixes this jazzy-funk-soul into a polished six and a half minutes of laid back pleasure that would have found a good home being played in a smoke filled undergound club somewhere is the seedier areas of Joburg.

Stimela had been going since the late 70’s but this song which was the title track of their 1987 album of the same name, showed that they had become comfortable with their trade and were capable of fine nuggets like this. They continued to record and release albums up to 2011, so yes, the title of this track was true. Phiri sadly died in 2017.

Where to find it:
The Unfinished Story / Fire,Passion,Ecstasy – Stimela (1994), Gallo, CDGMP 40490 H

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