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Art, Culture, Music

Curse of the Coal Train

by Andy Davis / 08.02.2010

“The coal train is a motherfucker,” says Hugh Masekela in Songs of Migration, in his build up to performing the classic song “Stimela”.
“There are no happy songs about trains in Africa.” The train is a symbol of dislocation, forced removals, the leaving of loved ones, insecurity and upheaval. And then he begins to blow that flugelhorn. “Stimela” is a monument of a protest song. A triumph. It’s an artwork so large and encompassing that it hardly fits into the confines of its definition as a song, overflowing at the edges. As an artwork, it transcends. It’s a touchstone, a piece of magic that cuts straight to the most cogent concerns of our country, simply and succinctly. It conjures so much concentrated emotion into those 6 minutes that when Hugh screams that choo-choo whistle, he vents the emotions and frustrations of everyone. He taps straight into that rich vein. The collective consciousness. It’s a shriek that cuts deep in the soul. You have to be made of stone to not be moved.

So it’s little wonder that using “Stimela” as the impetus Hugh Masekela, along with writer and director James Ngcobo and the esteemed vocal talent of Sibongile Khumalo, have created an entire play around the theme of migration. It’s really a series of curated songs by the likes of Mackay Davashe, Joseph Shabalala, Victor Ndlazilwane, Gibson Kente, Hugh Masekela, Dorothy Masuka and Miriam Makeba, among many others, that were inspired by the great trek from the village to the city, from traditional, communal and ancestral lands to the townships and hostels of the cities. As Hugh puts it, “Migration is always the result of social and political upheaval, poverty, war and colonialism.” As people moved to the cities they brought with them their culture, their mannerisms and their longing for a better life. It’s fertile ground for political theatre, as relevant today as it ever was.

Hugh Masekela, Sibongile Khumalo

The whole show operates like an extravagant jazz gig, with the band taking centre stage and all the players singing and acting around them. True to form, it’s a well assembled troupe, the band ably led by Ezbie Moilwa on the keyboards with Tshepo Mngoma on violin and vocals, Fana Zulu on bass, Ntokoso Zungu on guitar and Godfrey Mngcina on percussion. The acting choir (as in a choir that acts) made up of Kuki Mncube, Bonginkosi Zulu, Happy Motha, Gugu Shezi, Linda Thobela, Thumbeza Hlope and Nomdumiso Zondeki were all exceptional.

From the outset Bra Hugh takes to the stage with an extended jive that belies his status as madala. The guy’s almost 71 years old and he can still boogie and bend down low like a jags teenager. It’s a treat to see him on a stage as intimate as the Market Theatre. The Market Theatre, like Hugh, has seen its fair share of controversy and struggle, from fiery plays of revolution and the vibrant struggle culture of the anti-apartheid movement, the boycotts and censorship through the post-apartheid demise of Joburg’s CBD and it’s subsequent Newtown revival, the theatre has stood by stoically. And it’s a real pleasure to watch the struggle veteran blow his horn, and let Sibongile’s voice pick at your heart strings, in this venerable space.

Although a bit long in parts, and maybe deserving of an interval to break up the show, the nicest thing about Songs of Migration is that it never feels the necessity to translate anything. The majority of the action takes place in isiZulu, isXhosa, Pedi, Tswana and tsotsi taal mixed up with bits of English and Afrikaans. It doesn’t pander to a Northern Suburbs audience, it’s like you can almost hear Hugh admonishing the crowd, “if you don’t speak Zulu or any other African language, fuck you, what’s your problem, you’ve been here long enough to learn something, at least.”

And although the music is largely Southern African in origin, there’s a stirring rendition of a Yiddish folk song about forced migration and even a re-imagining of “Sarie Marais”, but with Zulu vocal harmonies. Renditions of “Hamba Nontsokolo” and the Masekela hit about being caught out late without a pass in apartheid suburban Johannesburg, “Mama Ndoro”. There’s an incredible take on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “Nomathemba” that’ll leave you with your bottom jaw on the dirty floor. The music then swings through the cotton fields of the Mississippi and the old gospel of the American South, via Lagos Nigeria with Fela Kuti’s “Languta” before returning to Mzanzi for the finale.

After the show, Bra Hugh and Lady Khumalo, swanned around the adjacent restaurant of Gramadoelas, amicable and stately, a couple of fans bugged them for photographs while the rest of the patrons basked in their glow, ate malva pudding and drank beer.
“This is just the beginning of a series of plays.” Said Hugh. “Each one focussing on a specific theme or issue in the music.”

Songs Of Migration plays at the Market Theatre until 21 February 2010

There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi
there is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Zwaziland,
From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa.
This train carries young and old, African men
Who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg
And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay.
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth
When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone,
Or when they dish that mish mesh mush food
into their iron plates with the iron shovel.
Or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy,
Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.
They think about the loved ones they may never see again. Because they might have already been forcibly removed
From where they last left them
Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night
By roving and marauding gangs of no particular origin,
We are told. They think about their lands, their herds
That were taken away from them
With a gun, bomb, teargas and the cannon.
And when they hear that Choo-Choo train
They always curse, curse the coal train,
The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.

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