World famous in South Africa

The history of popular music in South Africa continues to interest documentary filmmakers. Of recent offerings two films stand out: “Punk in Africa,” about the history of the genre in Southern Africa since the 1970s (word is it’s a bit unfocused), and Daniel Yon’s beautiful film about jazz singer Sathima Benjamin, “Sathima’s Windsong.” I’ve just gotten word of “Searching for Sugar Man,” about a 1970s Detroit-based Mexican-American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, who was unknown at home, but became very famous among young white South Africans at the time. Rodriguez had staged his suicide on stage after he had released two albums with little popular success and had vanished from the music scene. Meanwhile, in South Africa, his music had developed a cult following, especially among white conscripts fighting Apartheid’s wars in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. (It also turns out he was popular among suburban high school kids in South Africa the 1990s.) Below is an interview with Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul by Sundance TV around the time the film made its US debut and was picked up by Sony Classic Pictures (despite some critics’ doubts ) for distribution. Bendjelloul and the film’s PR is prone to exaggeration: The music did not resonate with all South Africans or galvanize a movement against Apartheid (that’s news to me), but I suppose they won’t let that get in the way of a good story.

AIAC blogger Tom tells me he had never heard of Rodriguez — that is, not before hanging out with former South African conscripts, white men in their early 40s (as part of his PhD project) but agrees with the director: Rodriguez’ albums are masterpieces (at times on par with some of Bob Dylan’s work). Here’s Rodriguez playing one of his songs, “Inner City Blues”:


4 thoughts on “World famous in South Africa

  1. Oh man. The song “Sugar Man” was part of the soundtrack for my law school years in Pretoria. At TuksFM, the student-run radio station where I was a news reader, this man was worshipped as a god. I never knew the story behind Rodriguez. Will let them know about this film. And that he’s actually still alive! Also, the now renamed band Just Jinjer does a good cover of Sugar Man. That’s how popular Rodriguez was, suburban kids in high school in the 90s knew his music and loved it, and when they formed bands, they had to record covers. Thanks for this post.

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