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12 January 2015

Searching for a construction worker

by Philharmonie Luxemburg

The long overdue part 3 of our series The unexpected is about the world's most famous construction worker who was the focus of an Academy Award-winning documentary in 2012. A folk musician whose talent is just as great as Bob Dylan's but whose career has been slightly less stellar.

The story of Sixto Rodriguez is the story of a lot of musicians. As a young, talented guitarist, singer, songwriter Rodriguez used to play gigs in coffee houses and bars in Detroit, dreaming of being picked up by a label. His dream came true when he was signed by Sussex and recorded two albums, Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality in 1971. But he didn't make it. There was no fame, no glory, no money and in 1974 Rodriguez left the music scene. He toured Australia in 1979 and 1981 but his musical career was as good as over.

On the other side of the world the 1970s saw the rise of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and Rodriguez's protest songs about social issues resonated with the people living under the regime. How couldn't they, with lyrics like "This system's gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune / And that's a concrete cold fact"?

Thousands of bootleg copies of his albums circulated through the country at the time. As a South African would later put it, it was the soundtrack to their lives. But with the country mostly functioning a closed little world, this all took place unbeknown to Rodriguez. Besides, rumor had it that Rodriguez was dead.

Fast forward to 1997. One of Rodriguez's hardcore South African fans, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, set up a website with the intention of finding any information about the musician who had such an impact on him and his country. This search was the focus of Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary that gave Rodriguez the fame, the glory and, yes, the money he had been dreaming of 40 years earlier. With each prize and award the film won, the notion that Rodriguez's talent had been unfairly overlooked for decades spread and interest in his music grew all over the world.

What is it that's makes his music and lyrics not only good but timeless? Maybe it's because the world has changed but wars and inequalities still make the headlines and the malaise remain. "Have you ever been in darkness / And your mind could find no peace / When you woke up after midnight / Found your swans had turned to geese," he sings in "Climb up on my music". How could we not relate?

As for the music, British producer Steve Rowland made sure that the second album was true to Rodriguez. For the song "Cause", "the arrangement is the complete opposite of the lyrics," Rowland explains. The strings are rather joyful and may remind the listener of peaceful and happy moments. But all the while Rodriguez just picks and strums his guitar singing about unemployment and sons lost at war. Coming from Reality was produced "in a way that completely went against the grain during that era," and when it's done right, that's the recipe for a masterpiece.

Today, at "a solid 70", he performs everywhere on the planet, with a dozen of different bands because of budget constraints. He still only has two records under the belt but doesn't rule out releasing a third one. He's never stopped writing and as a self-described musical-political being, he hasn't lost his will to denounce social injustices and discuss social issues. Who knows if this potential third album will ever come out? And does it matter? The myth will live on.


-- Julie