Unexpected questions can open up new thoughts. A new perspective can open new answers and new findings can satisfy an old thirst.
A question from a stranger via Facebook this morning was less existential, more specific and artistic. “How would I explain why Rodriguez’s music made such an impression in South Africa and not the rest of the world?” A nice challenging question and it reminded me of the impression that Searching for Sugar Man left on me. The documentary connected dots from earlier in my life that appeared like the unrelated songs on a mixed tape before. Until you find out who made the tape and for whom. Then you can recognise a certain theme or a hidden message.
I confess that my early life was nothing special. I cannot claim that I took a position in either the left or right growing up in a political and racially divided South Africa. I grew up without television as it only arrived in the Republic in 1976. When my parents did buy our first black and white Sony, the content was heavily regulated by the governing National Party and SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). In addition, due to the apartheid policies at the time and within the framework of larger boycotts against South Africa (e.g. sport, for musicians to tour South Africa), the United Kingdom and Australia introduced a boycott of their programme sales to South Africa. Therefore, most kids and teenagers my age grew up in the late 1970’s and 1980’s on a diet of local TV shows and later programmes from America such as Knight Rider, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, etc.
After 5 years of limited hours broadcasting on one channel a second channel was introduced in 1981 that broadcasted in the main African languages. However, the SABC operated within a country where all aspects of life and every South African was dominated by narratives about race and subjected to a controlling bureaucracy that was pushing for control over all aspects of life. In addition, the close relation between state and church (Dutch Reformed Church) created a dictation from both politicians and pulpits on morally acceptable behaviour, choice of music, etc. and what was approved on racial grounds. For a white middle-class small town boy, what happened outside my small protected environment was a world far away and often filled by voices and news paper pictures of what seemed like very angry black people. Given that the SABC was by large state-controlled, it provided very little time to any voice that did not fit the ruling party’s agenda or to opposition politicians. Even when a subscription based TV service arrived in 1986, the state regulated that they were not allowed to broadcast news programs.
This was the context in which I grew up. Restricted, regulated and separated. Even though my recall of growing up and life up to the early nineties are filled with happiness and plenty of laughs, these wonder years were naïve times. Only with time a political consciousness grew and a realisation that my protected life was in contrast with those living with fear, poverty and limited opportunities.
A few alternative voices crept through the cracks during those times and oftenthey arrived in guises or unexpected places. Even though local religious leaders and the state expose pop music and rock and roll as from the devil as well as a threat to all that is morally good and holy, some of these voices arrived with soundtracks. A revisit to music available and broadcasted in South Africa during the 1980’s does not inspire any great political speeches. However, a few dare to challenge. The best example was the local band Bright Blue that released the beautiful “Weeping” in 1987. Even though it contained harmony parts of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and referred to the “State of the Emergency” at the time, those in power seemed blissfully unaware of this. In 1999 Weeping was voted best All Time Favourite South African song and in 2000 as (South African) Song of the Century.
South Africa was also experiencing more exposure to musicians and bands from abroad, even though boycotts did not allow them to tour and perform. Queen, Erasure, Genesis, U2, Talking Heads, Blondie, A-Ha, Paul Simon and others competed with those banning anything that appeared too sexual, liberal or had references to banned chemicals. I don’t know how much influence music had on the crumbling political situation, but it provided a voice to those disgruntled with apartheid or rebellious in the face of the dominant moral imperatives.
A few musicians however provided more poetic and intelligent lyrics that verbalised alternative narratives that resonated with the youth, due to their rebelliousness, due to the mystery of the artists and as they arrived in a void that formed where critique of the system was deemed evil. The two names that immediately come to mind are (Sixto) Rodriguez and Leonard Cohen. Their music explored themes of relationships, sexuality, power and oppression that did not fit the common commercial or repressed political lines. Where South African protest songs and artists where still few, their music provided a new discourse that challenged the establishment and raised questions about justice and equality, but also had a smack of hedonism and escapism. Their brave lyrics found a waiting consciousness that hungered for alternatives, for music that would match the awakening political mind of a young white South Africa or at least found part of the vinyl or tape collections of those that loved songs like “I Wonder”, “Sugar Man” or Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “Chelsea Hotel” as part of a rite of passage into young adulthood.
When asked about his lack of success after his two albums released, Rodriquez suggested, “I was ready for the world but I don’t think the world was ready for me“. He was wrong, at the foot of Africa there was a readiness that responded. Only recently he found out about it.
PS: For those not knowing “Weeping”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeecXiqNzWA