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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Hugh Masekela To Talk About Nostalgia in Post-Apartheid South Africa at Wits University

“There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe …”

If you have ever watched Hugh Masekela perform his anthem Stimela, you could not but have been profoundly affected by the force of its emotion as he sings and blows and shunts his tale of migrant labourers coming to Johannesburg on the coal train (steam train) to dig “deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth”.

Why does the song provoke such an intense response? At one level, it is because of the empathy it establishes with the people on whose backs our country’s wealth is built. And yet how to explain the passion, the sheer longing, evident at any performance of the song: the gathering cheer that builds through the crowd as they hear Masekela’s whoo-whoo and realise the train is about to arrive?

The thrill, of course, is connected to Masekela’s virtuosity and vitality. But the longing comes from somewhere else. A train, particularly a steam train, conjures up the past; in the way it crosses space and time, it represents the working of memory. And this act of remembering is at the heart of the experience of performing – and listening to – Stimela.

We love great songs because they trigger memories of the previous times we heard them. In the case of Stimela, it might take us back to a simpler time, when there was evil and it could be fought with struggle and song.

Masekela wrote the song when he was in exile, and it expresses his own longing for home. He also succeeds in evoking not just the pain, but also the longing of the subjects of his song, the labourers who “always curse, curse the coal train, the coal train that brought them to Johannesburg”.

Although it might seem paradoxical, there is an element of nostalgia in the rhythmic “curse, curse” of the migrant labourers for the train. This is a nostalgia we experience as listeners too, for a journey we all know in one way or another: one that takes one from the countryside to the city, from the past to the present, from youth to old age.


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