Searching for Sugar Man: Detroit musician connects with mass audience in South Africa
27 August 2012
Directed by Malik Bendejelloul
The documentary Searching for Sugar Man uncovers musical connections spanning two continents and more than 8,000 miles. The recordings of a Detroit singer-songwriter, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (born 1942), who virtually no one ever heard of in the US, unknowingly achieved platinum album status (by the UK standard) in faraway South Africa.
Although a documentary, the film tells a story so incredible that it feels like a work of fiction. Searching for Sugar Man has been described as a fairy tale. To its credit, Malik Bendejelloul’s work raises numerous questions, some more profound than others, about music, global politics and money.
Stephen Segerman, a white South African eventually instrumental in tracking down the artist known only by his last name, Rodriguez, opens the story. He describes Rodriguez’s music as “the soundtrack to our lives,” speaking of his generation of Afrikaner youth who came into opposition against the apartheid system and police-state strictures aimed at repressing all independent thought.
The music is compared to Bob Dylan’s, but in South Africa, according to Segerman, “Cold Fact,” Rodriguez’s first album, became so popular that it was one of three albums to be found in the record collection of virtually every white liberal household, along with the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” While his music is unmistakably influenced by Dylan, Rodriguez’s lyrics express more directly the experience of more oppressed layers of the population.
“Sugar Man,” the tune that inspired the film’s title, is a plea for drugs to escape from reality. Unlike Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the tune doesn’t play up the ecstasy of a drug-induced psychedelia, but rather evokes a desperate inability in the face of a brutal world to find an “answer that makes my questions disappear.”
Another song from “Cold Fact,” entitled “This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or the Establishment Blues,” became an anthem to thousands of South African youth who defied the police and state forces. It evokes another Dylan song, “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” but again it more explicitly criticizes the existing state of society. The last line cited below is the source of the album’s title:
Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using, people they’re abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it’s at
Woke up this morning with an ache in my head
I splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed
I opened the window to listen to the news
But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues
Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact
Admirers in South Africa, where his recordings had become so popular, knew nothing about Rodriguez—where he came from, what inspired his music, not even his full name. It was believed that Rodriguez had killed himself onstage during a performance. There were conflicting rumors about his death—one said he poured gasoline over himself and ignited it; another story had it that he shot himself in the head with a handgun.
On the sugarman.org web site, Segerman (who ironically was also known as “Sugarman” or just “Sugar”) explains that in 1991 a chance conversation sent him searching for the second Rodriguez album, “Coming From Reality,” which was released in South Africa, but which he had never seen or heard.
Commissioned along with another writer to produce liner notes for the first CD release of that album, “we pondered the whereabouts of Rodriguez and asked if there were ‘any Musicologist detectives out there’ willing to help find this elusive man. Up in Johannesburg a journalist called Craig Bartholomew (Strydom) read those words, contacted me, and we met a while later in Cape Town and agreed to launch a joint search to find Rodriguez.”
Eventually, through a web site set up by Bartholomew-Strydom called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt,” the South Africans made contact with the producers of “Cold Fact” in Detroit.
They also found out that Rodriguez was still alive.