‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is a recently released documentary about the 1970’s American singer Sixto ‘Jesus’ Rodriguez, who sold more records in South Africa than did the Rolling Stones at that time. It tells the story of the search by two South Africans and their chance find of Rodriguez, against the backdrop of beautiful (if very ‘Seventies) filming of Cape Town’s icons, including Table Mountain, Camps Bay, Lion’s Head, the city centre, Signal Hill, and the ocean road alongside the Twelve Apostles.
Stephen Sugar Segerman from Cape Town was intrigued by the success of Rodriguez in South Africa, having sold 500000 records locally but appearing to not have made it internationally. He wondered what had happened to Rodriguez, having heard a rumour that the singer had committed suicide. At the same time journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom from Johannesburg was intrigued by the same question, and in the 1990’s he launched an investigation, to find out more about Rodriquez. Segerman started a website, using the ‘Missing Persons’ milk carton device to request anyone with information about Rodriguez to contact him. Bartholomew Strydom tried to trace the singer via the three local record distributors, paying royalties to Sussex Records in the USA. Rodriguez’s lyrics of his two records were analysed, and this led them to a town called Dearborn, in Detroit, where the singer lived One of the singer’s daughters saw Segarman’s website, and he received a call from her, and later from her father. The singer was overwhelmed to hear how famous he was in our country, without ever having been, having given up performing to become a construction worker, to survive financially.
The documentary tells the happy end of the Rodriguez story, in that the singer and his daughters were invited to South Africa to perform in 1998 at six sold-out venues (including the Bellville Velodrome in Cape Town) around the country. Rodriguez returned to South Africa four times to perform for his local fans. Local writer Rian Malan was interviewed for the film, and he described how difficult it was to extract information from Rodriguez, reflecting his ‘mystery’ nature. The film reflects how humble Rodriguez and his family were when they first arrived in Cape Town, surprised that the limousine awaiting them at the airport was for them, and expressing surprise at all the posters advertising his concert on the way from the airport. It also is a reminder of our country’s censorship past, with TV banned (until 1976), and the SABC banning some of Rodriguez’s songs, the offending ones being scratched on the LP in the SABC library, to make them unplayable. Rodriguez’s music became the ‘anthem’ for unhappy young South Africans, especially students, who were already rebelling against the political situation in the country, which had led to sanctions, and a freeze on international music acts visiting our country in the ‘Seventies.
One of Rodriguez’s daughters fell in love with the bodyguard looking after them on one of their Cape Town visits, they married, and now Rodriguez has a South African grandson!
Segerman (who has a record shop Mabu Vinyls on Rheede Street, off Kloof Street – photograph) is the key to Rodriguez now achieving the fame he deserved forty years ago. Segerman met Swedish documentary maker Malik Bendjelloul, told him the Rodriguez story, and that sparked his interest to make the ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ movie. It debuted at the Sundance Festival, and won two awards. Segerman has documented the search for Rodriguez. If it had not been for Segerman’s keen interest in the mystery singer, assisted by Bartholomew Strydom’s investigative journalism, Rodriguez may never have had a second chance at fame, and Cape Town would never have featured in the Rodriguez story or movie! With international distribution of the ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ movie, Cape Town has a fantastic international marketing platform, even if the images are very dated.
POSTSCRIPT 27/9: ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ has achieved critical acclaim. The new 2012 soundtrack with the same name as the movie has been released, and has made 13th position in the Swedish charts, and 24th in New Zealand.
POSTSCRIPT 25/10: It was announced today that Rodriguez will perform at Grand West on 20 February.
POSTSCRIPT 10/1: ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ has been nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Feature category, it has just been announced, the best news for Cape Town!
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage