This is such a sucker-punch of a song. You don’t even need to understand the words (which are below, never fear, faithful readers) to know it’s about something fairly wretched involving a train. This song portrays the life of black African migrant workers working in South African mineral mines. Some melancholy songs are more mellow than sad. Not this one, not by a long shot. This is sad, resigned, longing, resentful, and angry, all at the same time. By the time harmony spreads out at 2:31, you’ve already committed yourself to listening to the whole thing, maybe even again a second time, even though it’s a tough haul.
Masekela wrote this song in 1974, about halfway through the lifespan of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
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.