‘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‘Stimela’ is an important historical document about a practice that continues even in these days after apartheid.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)