Coming In From Reality

I first heard Rodriguez when I was sixteen in Vredenburg, on the West Coast in 1975. I was working part-time for Chatillon, the town’s moffie watchmaker, who operated a record shop next to the butcher, selling mainly Kwela music to Xhosa migrant workers. Old Chat was my muse, providing no actual funds, but access to a guitar amp and importantly almost the entire popular music catalog distributed in South Africa at that time.

SA was a repressive, fascist state where music was censored extensively. I was in charge of ordering what I thought would sell in the shop. Very often I’d be able to get hold of way cool records before they were banned by the state censor. Coming In From Reality by the artist called Rodriguez was such a record…

Chatillon’s shop was just across the road from the town’s police station. So was great fun for me to play the drug-inspired song Sugarman on the big speaker outside the shop and – through the shop window – watch the dumb, sadistic face of the sergeant, fingering his rhino whip, visibly straining to figure out the meaning of:

“Silver magic ships you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane…”

Searching for the Sugarman
Enter the recent documentary Searching For the Sugarman (2012). The film traces the mythology of Jesus Rodriguez, as he was referred to on the album cover, whose personal details were unknown. It was rumoured that this “coloured”, hip cat with the shades and his gift for word & song, was so uncompromising about his art that he had self-immolated (some claimed he’d shot himself) on stage.

As the film explains, Rodriguez’s music in 1970′s South Africa was certainly an inspiration to the few white liberals of the time. Yet much more, as someone whose songs were inspired by post-beat poetics, he became wildly fashionable in hedonistic all-white student circles. The Forbidden Fruit, The Secret Tip, whose “outrageous” recordings were keenly pirated and traded like dirty magazines in army barracks and high school playgrounds alike.

Rodriguez was maar lekker, ek sê: like long hair, jeans and bangles. And being dead he had become a legend.

The Messiah Rises
But Jesus Rodriguez was actually alive! He had been living hard, working construction since the 70s as an unknown in Motown Detroit, USA. His records had totally failed in his home country. With the help of the Internet, 2 African fans made contact with his daughter and exposed the entire story. They brought the bewildered Sixto/Jesus over to Cape Town where he performs at the Good Hope Center to nostalgic, disbelieving capacity crowds. “Cape Town treated me like a prince,’ he later said. In interviews he is painfully shy, almost inarticulate, hiding as ever, behind his shades.

The film is beautifully shot, with scenes of both Cape Town and an icy Detroit where Rodriguez trudges, saint-like through the snow with his evocative songs being the soundtrack. It’s haunting, beautiful and mysterious at once.

His music is available on iTunes and Spotify. Albums:

Cold Fact
Coming From Reality
Searching for the Sugarman (Soundtrack