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.