by Alexander Varty
October 17th, 2018
The Georgia Straight
Here in western North America, land of vast distances and shoddy transportation infrastructure, the value of the railroad as metaphor is unclear. Roads, not rails, rule our imagination. But in other places and at other times, the iron horse was a potent symbol of both freedom and oppression. The Impressions, for instance, were not talking about catching the 5:15 to Westchester when they sang “People Get Ready” in 1965; their train was pulled by the locomotive of justice, and their destination was an equitable society. And when the Wailers recorded “Stop That Train” in 1973, they were looking for a passage not just out of Kingston, Jamaica, but away from Babylon’s industrialized hell.
There’s another train song that stands with those classics, and although you’ve probably heard it, you might not know what it’s about unless you’re South African. Popularized by Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba in 1965, “Mbombela” was a staple of the battle against apartheid, yet it’s not quite a protest song. More reportage than agitprop, it sets a tale of longing against a gloriously uplifting melody in order to detail the lives of South African miners, forced to live away from their families while labouring under near-slavery conditions.
The tune is unforgettable, and the Soweto Gospel Choir’s version is as well, with Milton Ndlakuse’s interpretation of its Swazi lyrics now burned into my brain.
“In the past, our forefathers were using trains as a form of transport to go to the mines,” the soft-spoken tenor tells the Straight in a telephone interview from a Berkeley, California, tour stop. “So if that train misses you, that means you don’t go to work. And since we were oppressed by whites, if you came late to work, that meant you were no longer part of that job. It was really, really crucial for you to get that train, and ‘Mbombela’ is an expression of that. It’s saying ‘That train is leaving, and you’d better make sure that you get it so that you can work to feed your kids.’ ”
The tune, now given an upbeat arrangement that’s far more optimistic than Belafonte and Makeba’s version, will be a centrepiece of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s upcoming Orpheum concert, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the great freedom fighter Nelson Mandela’s birth.
“We are also celebrating other fallen heroes, like Stephen Biko—people who were influential in terms of struggle in the past,” Ndlakuse adds. “Basically, the first section of our show is struggle songs, and then in the second section we’re celebrating life—and celebrating our freedom, also.”
While things have improved in South Africa, Ndlakuse cautions that racism still exists. And with North America seeming to backslide in that regard, he has some words of hope.
“You know, one thing that seems to be really powerful in life is music,” he says. “Music has the power to unite and the power to give strength. As South Africans, we have hope and strength in our music, and it just gets into our hearts. So I would like to say to North America that music can give encouragement; it can provoke people to unite.”
Amen to that.
The Soweto Gospel Choir plays the Orpheum on Saturday (October 20).