Saturday, January 26, 2013

I wonder why....

When I moved to South Africa in the early nineteen eighties, I adopted everything about my new country that affected me personally and culturally. Part of that was the musical background. I learned to know and love artists like Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg, Ladysmith Black Mambaza , Miriam Makeba and numerous other uniquely South African musicians. There was, however, one voice, one soul, one artist, whose music was everywhere and who I just accepted as part of the scene. That artist was a man by the name of Rodriguez. His songs were one of the sounds of the South Africa of the 80's and 90's. Every time you went out to a cafe, bar or pizza restaurant, you heard "Sugarman", "I wonder why", and "I'll Slip Away" - beautiful, haunting songs with lyrics to make you search your soul.

The thing was I never thought beyond that. Rodriguez was a hugely popular artist in South Africa, so I assumed he was equally popular elsewhere - at the time.

Life has move on since then and at the beginning of this millenium, I moved to the Netherlands where I learned to appreciate the music produced here. Rodriguez was not exactly forgotten, but was relegated to that fond place in my playlists that was occupied by other South African favourites. But what I never realised was that he was not actually known anywhere outside of South Africa.

I have this evening just watched a very moving film called Searching for Sugarman. It is the story of Rodriguez, a modest labourer from Detroit with the soul of a poet. He recorded an album called  Cold Fact in 1970 that was critically highly acclaimed, but which totally bombed in the U.S. By chance, though, an Amercian girl, visiting her boyfriend in South Africa, took a bootleg copy with her. It was the era of Apartheid and so the record was not produced officially. Much of it was actually banned, because of its controversial lyrics. But, as we say these days, it went viral in the South Africa of the time and from that one copy, more than half a million were subsequently sold - which is a lot for a third world country under a repressive regime.

What is even more remarkable is that Rodriguez himself had no clue that his record had achieved such popularity in that far off land. In fact, no one knew, simply because the regime of the day in South Africa did not encourage outside interference. And anyway, sanctions were in place. In South Africa, he was a mega star, but at home, Rodriguez gave up hopes of a musical career in Detroit and went back to renovating houses. His records continued to be sold in South Africa and his popularity continued, but there it stopped and any knowledge about the singer faded into obscurity.

Nevertheless, in the nineteen nineties, two South Africans, one a journalist and the other a jeweller, decided to set out to see if they could find what had happened to this star of theirs. No one in the country had any idea of who he was and what had happened to him in the intervening years. Reports abounded that he had rather dramatically committed suicide on stage. And this is where the documentary film comes in.

Searching for Sugarman tells of their search for Rodriguez, and how they found him, still working as a labourer in downtown Detroit. The knowledge that he had become something of a folk and national hero in South Africa surprised but did not fase him, and when he ultimately made a concert tour to the country that so idolised him, he took it all in his modest stride. He played to concerts of thousands several times over, but still returned to his honest and basic lifestyle back in Detroit.

This is a beautiful and touchingly sincere film. It has also been a huge success. It has had rave reviews and more stars than you can count. For me, though, it has a wealth of memories, feelings and associations too. Rodriguez was a major part of the cultural scene in our South African life. I took it all for granted at the time, and didn't even remember it until my daughter just started singing his songs as if it was as natural as breathing. Somehow, that makes this story all the more moving.

I hope Sixto Rodriguez now has the opportunity to reap some of the rewards of his South African fame in his old age. The strangeness of this story is what makes it special, but the loyalty of his fan base across the social and political barriers that were South Africa make it unique.

Does anyone else have a story about music that means something or is associated with a certain time in your life?

ps: for an even more enthusiastic blog post about this story see Hilary's blog post from November last year. I didn't know about it when she wrote this, being a recent contact of hers, but it is a brilliant blog and describes her own discovery of the film and more of its story.


  1. This sounds like a very interesting and moving film, I will keep an eye out for it. Has your snow gone? It is raining here and I hope that's the last of the horrible white stuff x

  2. How coincidental, Val! At the beginning of last week, I was entranced by a tuba and blogged about it. Music and smells are very powerful in re-creating the past and it takes merely the whiff of a tune from the sixties to take me back to my friends in Spalding, just as a demi-semi-quaver of an olfactory moment will conjure up, say, my primary school classroom! I love this post; it's unusual in its subject, obviously very powerful for you. Thank you!

  3. Fran, it is a very moving film. I was quite choked by the end! And no, the white stuff hasn't gone. In fact, it was snowing again this morning - just to irritate me further!

    Christina, thank you! And isn't that so true about how sounds evoke memories? But talking of olfactory moments, yes, smells too! I have this thing about the smell of tinned tomatoes. That along with Dire Straits's Sultans of Swing takes me instantly back to morning sickness...maybe for another post?

  4. Hi Val .. I'm not very musical - but the poster Searching for Sugarman reached out to me on the tube stations in London .. and I knew I had to find out more ..

    I did and eventually got to see film in London - it didn't reach the suburbs - last October ... and blogged about in in November - here's my write up ..

    I just loved it as you'll gather.

    A friend from our SA days .. said she'd been looking at getting the DVD via LoveFilms .. when my prezzie dropped through the door - and I gave a few copies to family and SA friends - as I'm sure they'll love it.

    He was meant to be doing a tour here .. but I sort of got the idea that he's not very well - and haven't followed up.

    It is an amazing story - and a story told in film ... rather than via book to a film ... I loved it.

    So pleased you saw it and wanted to blog about it too .. after my first viewing I'd have stayed in my seat - but had to wait a week and go back up to London ..

    Whiter Shade of Pale is my song - as such .. but I'm sure there are many others .. not being too musical I forget!! Smells now - I'll have to think on that ...

    Cheers - loved the film .. Hilary

  5. Val, what's odd about your post is....I had never heard of this artist, nor Sugarman, but watching TV last night there was a 5 minute promo for "Searching for Sugarman" and I was enlightened to this artist. Much like my dream of Africa, and your last post. wow, weird.

  6. Hilary, how fantastic is that? I love your post and have put a link to it at the foot of mine. You describe the film and the search so well. What I was wondering was whether you remember him from SA too? I wasn't quite sure of that.

    Grace, another amazing coincidence. There must be something in the air! Nice to think we are connected in this way!

  7. Watched an interview of Rodriguez on 60 Minutes over here (a news program) and I was stunned why he wasn't far better known to more places and thought it peculiar that his lyrics would touch a culture entirely seeming outside of growing up in Detroit.

    He was a janitor (I think I recall clearly). His eyesight is now weak. I think he's returning for a performance or he has done already. Some performance alerted him to see he had a real strong audience who all missed him for years.

    A poet indeed.

  8. Appreciate Dutch music. That's a bold statement :p

  9. Gina, it was two South Africans who went looking for him that alerted him to his massive audience there. It is an immensely moving documentary, mainly because he himself has so much dignity.

    Grace, it is indeed a connection!

    Stu, yes...well...I meant European really...

  10. What isn't clear to me Val is why you moved to S.A. ?

  11. Mel, it's a long story...there were a number of reasons, but two that I can tell you are that we were cold and broke in 1980. I could cope with one or the other, but not both. Since I hate being cold, and the choice for a new beginning was between Canada and South Africa, the latter won rather easily. We went in 1981

    The political mood was already changing at that time as well, so it was not long before we witnessed the first stages of the active dismantling of apartheid and it was good to be part of the process that ultimately voted for a fair and just system.

  12. Thank you for explaining about is something that I had often wondered about.

  13. Have taken naughty time out of finishing my book to order the cd soundtrack of the film. Hoping the documentary may reach BBC some day...xx

  14. Anne, as soon as I've got it back from the girls, I'll let you have the DVD. Hopefully, that will be before you go off again in March...can't believe it's only just over a month away. Feel we've barely seen you!

  15. I'm sure we'll find time to get together before that! Send me some dates.....xx

  16. For me, it is the rich, timeless voice of Roger Whittaker.


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