Article by Samuel Monyame Maifadi, SA
One of the most striking features in our stories is the tjhutjhu train. More than just a mode of transport, the tjhutjhu train is a mixed bag of emotions – ululations at the train station during this time of the year as mineworkers return home after a whole year underground in the belly of Johannesburg; the deep sadness of a lover as the train departs for the big cities, never knowing whether they’ll see their lover ever again.
Bra Bugh Masekela once staged a production at the Market Theatre that he titled ‘Songs of Migration’. This was a compilation of songs which I would like to believe constitutes a genre in their own right. These are songs whose central theme is that of migration, mainly the movement of men from their rural villages to the cities leaving behind women and children; the forced removals of families from one place to another under apartheid laws; images of a suitcase in hand and a baby on the back. And behind all these is the sound of the tjhutjhu train.
Bra Hugh’s iStimela sihamba ngamalahle and Mbongeni Ngema’s iStimela saseZola. These are two contrasting train sounds that painted our townships and villages. The former is more of a song of lamentation. It is about this train that carry the hopes of men and the families they are leaving behind as they journey to Johannesburg in search for this ‘mighty and evasive stone’. The latter is quite a happy tune of this train to Zola that ferries this lad to his lover, whom he describes as his Welcome Dover his ‘coal stove’ that warms him up.
I always tell our children that before the advent of essay writing, we used to write creative pieces that were called ‘compositions’. We composed stories from a topic we were given. I remember that I was once given a topic, ‘A Journey by Train’ to write about. Meanwhile I had never sat my foot in a train at the time but, I wrote quite a convincing story that placed me in a train as if I had ever been there. And here I was assisted by these songs of migration because listening to these songs, you can’t help but be transported by this tjhutjhu train to places you have never been. Later in life, I found my own train stories between Mabopane station and Pretoria Noord station which I shall tell in good time.
One of the greatest choral music composers of our time who composed isiXhosa choral music and who influenced my love for choral music, BB Myataza wrote a song Uloliwe. I learnt way back even as we were located in the then Bophuthatswana that Uloliwe is the train.
Describing the train in the song he called it ‘Maqengwamdaka’. I am yet to find a more suitable explanation for this terminology. The closest I could come to is the ‘beast of burden’.
In the song ‘Uloliwe’, Myataza dedicated a section to imitate the sound and movement of the train. He writes:
nakho e phokoza umisi uloliwe ngathi ushongololo uthi tjhutjhu tjhutjhu tjhutjhu…