sugarman’s been found


I’ve never seen the entire audience at a movie theatre sit through all the titles at the end, until I saw Searching for Sugarman a couple of nights ago. The film had been showing at Rosebank’s Cinema Nouveau for months – the first time I went to see documentary it was chock-full – but, incredibly, there was still a sizeable collection of people gathered to pay homage to Sixto “Jesus” Rodriguez..
The story of how Rodriguez, who lived in complete obscurity in his Detroit home in the US, and was “found” by two South African fans more than 25 years after his albums were released, has a fairy-tale quality to it. This is – apart from the fact that it’s a great documentary – no doubt why it has received numerous awards and critical acclaim across the globe.
The singer is not only a huge talent, but also a genuinely humble, nice guy, so he was able to quietly step into the role of long-lost hero with style and aplomb in the one country that reveres his music. This was in total contrast to his fans, who, when he finally appeared onstage in 1998, screamed without stopping for around frenzied 10 minutes, before he was finally able to sing his first song.
To give an outsider an idea of what Rodriguez meant to so-called white South Africans, he apparently sold half a million albums here (for which he received, I believe, no royalties). There are only four or five million so-called whites in this country, which means around one in 10 of them must have bought his music since 1971, when his albums came out.
And that’s not counting the countless others who taped the albums back in the days of cassettes. And if you also factor in how many whities heard his music from people who bought or taped it, it means practically an entire generation heard and grew up on his songs. He is part of our collective psyche, and is probably the most influential artist on white South African consciousness of the last quarter of the last century.
For those who weren’t here back in the bad old days, Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary explains pretty clearly, through interviews with South Africans, just why Rodriguez’s lyrics had such a massive, profound impact on those living under the oppression of apartheid. Many of his songs were banned, and never made it onto the radio, all of which merely encouraged people to acquire them.
I don’t want to give away too much, because this is a movie I think everyone should see, whether one hails from South Africa or not. It’s a universal theme, and it happens that every now and then that late in an artist’s life someone discovers their art in some other country, a la Buena Vista Social Club, or he or she discovers they are ‘big in Japan’ just when they were thinking of giving up on their art. Many South African artists only ‘made it’ in their own country when they returned from successful tours overseas.
And in the case of Rodriguez there’s the added irony that he isn’t ‘white’ at all – he’s the product of American Indian and Mexican parentage. Most white army conscripts’ musical collections in the 80s, I recall, were well stocked with Rodriguez and Bob Marley, both of whom conveyed messages entirely antithetical war and racism. Did the conscripts, rocking to these grooves in the heat of the Angolan or Namibian sun, know this at a conscious, or at some deeper level?
I guess no one will ever know. What I know for sure is that I am going to see Rodriguez’s fifth South African concert next year. Sugarman is still sweet music to my ears.

4 thoughts on “sugarman’s been found

  1. Great story. Thanks Sharon. Ja, imagine realising oneself in the living room, and no-one witnesses it .. I also like the idea that we are all ultimately destined to failure (death). One more reason to rage against the dying of the light!?

  2. I like the comments on our youth-obsessed culture, that his vulnerability allowed him to transcend himself, and that he lived the life and the truth that he sang of. A truly authentic example of individuation?

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