An elderly man in a black fedora and heavy sunglasses shuffles hesitantly along a Detroit sidewalk. The wrong side of 70, his eyesight poor, the man’s sloped shoulders suggest decades of hard labor.
His name is Sixto Rodriguez, and he has indeed spent most of his life struggling to provide for his family by taking poorly paid jobs on local building sites. But he’s also a rock star — at times “bigger than Elvis” in Australia, New Zealand and especially South Africa, where he’s sold hundreds of thousands of records — and has been since the 1970s.
Makes no sense? Welcome to the modern Cinderella story of Rodriguez, an extraordinary saga whose singer-songwriter protagonist was denied a lifetime of fame and adulation through a combination of inadequate communication, some likely financial cynicism, and plenty of unfortunate geography. Meet the poet who moved a generation of young people more than 40 years ago but enjoyed their acclaim only when they and he had passed middle age.
The Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the almost unbelievable story of a Mexican-American songwriter whose two early Seventies albums bombed in America, but who wound up finding a huge audience in Apartheid-era South Africa. Sixto Rodriguez had no idea he was a legend there until a group of fans found him on the Internet and brought him to the country for a series of triumphant concerts. But while Searching for Sugar Man (soundtrack and DVD now available) is a fantastic film, it only grazes the surface of Rodriguez’s life story. Here are 10 things you may not know about Rodriguez:
Not only did he skip the Oscar ceremony – he was asleep when he won.
Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul begged Rodriguez to attend the Oscars, but he refused, feeling it would take the attention away from the filmmakers. “We also just came back from South Africa and I was tired,” Rodriguez says. “I was asleep when it won, but my daughter Sandra called to tell me. I don’t have TV service anyway.”
South African music is entering an exciting era of opportunity and progress as new markets open up for homegrown sounds. This was one of the key messages emerging from the 2013 Music Exchange Conference, which saw industry moguls and musicians congregating at the iconic Cape Town City Hall to talk about the serious business of music.
For three days, from 21 to 23 March 2013, the City Hall was abuzz with the sound of music – with a full programme of workshops and panel discussions on making it, marketing it, getting it heard on various platforms and ensuring that it moves with the times.
This independent music conference, now in its third year, attracted hundreds of experts and delegates from across the music spectrum – from composers and publishers to record company executives and media – to share knowledge and ideas, network, perform live showcases and identify opportunities to boost South African music locally, regionally and abroad.
Among the high-profile music creators spotted at the conference were Vicky Sampson, Mynie Grové, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, RJ Benjamin, Chad Saaiman, Jimmy Nevis, Mark Haze, Dub Masta China and Arno Carstens, as well as industry heavyweights such as Universal Music A&R consultant Benjy Mudie, Cape Town Jazz festival founder Rashid Lombard and Rolling Stone SA editor-in-chief Miles Keylock.
The international speakers on the programme included acclaimed house music producer and remixer Charles Webster (UK), music promoter Doug Davenport (USA) and Africori CEO Yoel Kenan (France).
One of the conference’s undisputed highlights was the keynote address by Trevor Jones, moderated by Universal Records managing director Randall Abrahams. Now based in the UK, Jones was born in District Six and is considered one of the top five film score composers in the world, with several Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations as well two ASCAP Awards in the bag.
Jones has made an indelible mark on the global entertainment industry, scoring international blockbusters such as Notting Hill, The Last of the Mohicans, Mississippi Burning and The Mighty and working with the likes of U2, Sting, David Bowie, Sinead O’Connor, Britney Spears, Elvis Costello and Charlotte Church.
Jones became overcome with emotion after being given a standing ovation by delegates, who warmly welcomed him back home.
During his inspirational talk, he spoke about the importance of music education and his desire to give something back to South African music industry: “Key to South Africa’s success is hard work and building a positive perception of our country and us a nation,” he said.
Award-winning local singer, songwriter and guitarist Arno Carstens, who spoke at the conference about the song that made him famous, said it was an honour to be part of Music Exchange and it was encouraging and inspiring to see so many enthusiastic people attend and share their experiences and knowledge.
Joining Carstens on the stellar line-up of artists speaking about the song that made them famous, Vicky Sampson acknowledged songwriter Alan Lazar (formerly of Mango Groove, and now a successful composer based in Los Angeles), who wrote African Dream. “I am grateful that Alan gave me the song and did not pass me up for Mango Groove’s Claire Johnston,” Sampson quipped. She spent every minute of the conference absorbing and learning, as well as reconnecting with her mentor Benjy Mudie and her old friend RJ Benjamin.
Versatile singer, composer and teacher Benjamin, who has been invited to be a vocal coach for the upcoming season of Idols and will be composing SABC2’s new signature tune, continuously urged delegates to make use of social media platforms to reach new audiences. Benjamin stood out as one of the speakers to whom delegates were drawn and his presentations proved to be extremely popular.
After the weekend’s proceedings wrapped up, local music legend Hotstix tweeted: “What a conference; what great speakers and delegates – wow!”
Added a delighted Music Exchange founder and board member, Martin Myers: “We have been completely overwhelmed by the positive feedback we’ve received, and the animated conversations on social media platforms about the success of Music Exchange.
“Recording and performing artists, as well as composers and other industry players, have complimented the conference for being relevant, engaging and thought-provoking. There was a strong focus on the business side of music, which elevated this event above a mere talk shop: they left with useful, practical information that will undoubtedly be of immense value in their various professional ventures.”
Visit www.musicexchange.co.za to find out more about next year’s Music Exchange conference, or follow @musicexchange on Twitter.
Last Saturday night, after spending an evening (but not a penny) in the Grand West Casino, I ended up in the relatively new Lion’s Head Bar on Bree street. Sitting in the bar is a bit like sitting inside a navy submarine: the walls, the floors, the chairs and tables, and the bar are all a stark shade of grey. (Just the one shade of grey.) The bar serves craft beers, whiskeys and biltong, and the crowd – now the crowd were pretty cool. A lot of lace up shoes and second hand clothes, I think I found where the hip people go to avoid the young.
In the back of the Lion’s Head there is room for gigs. And, having missed the act I’d heard of and had hoped to see, I stumbled upon the beginning of the John Wizards set.
There are quite a few members of the band and I can’t remember all their names. They looked young, standing there together. Neat haircuts – all their ears were visible – and wearing lace-up sneakers. Still at an age where their metabolisms work at the same speed as their sexual appetites rather than their stomachs, their guitar bodies broader than their shoulders and hips.
The Hop Farm Music Festival, Kent’s number one festival, will be take place on the 5th and 6th July 2013.
The festival will offer two days of music for up to 10,000 people. Headliners have been announced as: My Bloody Valentine (exclusive festival show England & Wales) and Rodriguez.
Also announced for the Kent festival – The Horrors, Jimmy Cliff, The Cribs, First Aid Kit, Dinosaur Jr, The Presidents Of The United States Of America, Martha Wainwright, Edwyn Collins, Little Comets, Dry The River, The Staves, The Black Angels, Friends, Veronica Falls, Toy, Gaz Coombes, Tall Ships, Marcus Foster, Theme Park, Jack Savoretti, Cass McCombs, Sean Rowe, Wolf People, We Were Evergreen, Public Service Broadcasting, Temples, The Sheepdogs, Post War Years, Jesca Hoop, Concrete Knives, Luke Sital-Singh, Ben Caplan, Sweet Baboo, Drenge, Teleman. Sinkane, Paws, J Roddy Walston & The Business, Pales Seas, Syd Arthur, Washington Irving, Shields, Trevor Moss And Hannah Lou, The History Of Apple Pie, Acollective, Jess Roberts & The Silver Rays, Pyramids, Alba Lua, Ligers and Sally Archer. More acts are to be announced.
All you really have to know about this surprising and emotive music doc is that you should see it. Anyone who enjoyed, say, The Buena Vista Social Club or Anvil: The Story of Anvil, will surely go for this too. It tells the unlikely story of Sixto Rodriguez, a gifted but way-under-the-radar Detroit-based Hispanic singer-songwriter – and, like those other films, it enshrines a deeply moving idea that, in our cynical, superficial world, an authentic spirit will somehow, somewhere find its way to listeners’ hearts.
It’s also the remarkably round-the-houses route of Rodriguez’s odyssey which makes Searching for Sugar Man so intriguing. But, to be honest, the less you know about it, the richer your experience will be.
Part of the strangeness of the Rodriguez story is that he was never a star in the first place. Director Malik Bendjelloul treats us to generous slices of his early ’70s albums Cold Fact and Coming from Reality (recorded in the old Lansdowne studios in Holland Park, fact fans). The quality of the material is so striking – phantasmagorical lyrics shape a folk-pop hybrid comparable to Cat Stevens and Nick Drake – that it’s hard to believe the records disappeared without trace after their initial US release. It gets even odder from there, since the filmmaker actually came across the Rodriguez phenomenon in South Africa, where his music had spread like wildfire among a white middle class resistant to the apartheid regime. By the mid-’90s – as the film recounts via interviews, archive footage and even a splash of animation – Rodriguez had sold more records in South Africa than Elvis. But fans were starved of information about their idol. The rumour was that he’d shot himself on stage – a genuine rock ’n’ roll suicide!