Hugh Masekela (born April 4, 1939) is a South African trumpeter, trombonist, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, and singer and legend. His career spans almost 60 years and he has performed with everyone from U2, The Rolling Stones, Miriam Makeba and Herby Hancock.
“Stimela” was on the album titled Hope, released in 1994, around the time when South Africa was coming out of the Apartheid era and becoming a democracy. It was a pivotal time in South African history and “Stimela” served as part of the narrative of the changing times. This is why it’s such an important song for Hugh Masekela and the country at large.
“The coal train is a motherfucker,” says Hugh Masekela in his play 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. The song spoke of African men who came from far places to work in the mines in Johannesburg for measly pay and had poor quality of life with no alternatives because of the consequences of apartheid.
Hugh Masekela sings this song with a tangible passion and vigour, his anger and emotion pours out from his raspy, gravel-tinged voice and his golden trumpet. He moved an entire nation with this one song. Anyone who has heard “Stimela” can’t help but be moved by it even if they don’t understand the language he sings it in. This is the power of music and the power that resides in Hugh Masekela.
Watch him perform “Stimela” live at The Afrika Festival in Netherlands and watch him talk about the inspiration behind the song in an excerpt from a documentary called Amandla.