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The way we lived. 25.(Part 3) Liberation music of Sixto Rodrigues, Abdullah Ibrahim & Vuyusile Mini

Updated: Jun 1, 2023


Corona virus continues to ravage the world. With so many at risk elsewhere, one could almost feel guilty living in New Zealand or Australia where the spread has been controlled, but there are constant small pockets popping up to remind us of what a highly contagious disease this is.

To those of you out there in more affected countries, we wish you well. We feel for those of you who have already lost loved ones. We can but wish the vaccine arrives soon and that it will be made available to ALL in the world, not just the countries that can afford it.

I’ve suspended my COVID series which provided some light distraction in my writings of the past year, but I wanted to share some thoughts with people out there. It was meant to be a blog about the enigmatic singer-song-writer Rodrigues, but it expanded to a look at South African liberation music as I experienced it; also as I did NOT experience it. Confused? Allow me to explain in my blog which comes to you in three parts.

This blog is dedicated to the late Grammer brothers, Louis and Alec of Elsies River who took me to my first live Abdullah Ibrahim concert at Cape Town University in the mid-70s.

May I also take this opportunity to wish you all well over the festive season and may 2021 be better than 2020, the year when COVID-19 aka Corona virus entered our lives in no uncertain terms.

The way we lived. 25. The liberation music of Sixto Jesu Rodrigues aka Sugar Man; Abdullah Ibrahim; and Vuyisile Mini.

For many reasons music was banned in different parts of the world – maybe it was too sexy, too violent, too many drugs, too anti-religion; in South Africa it was all of these with an overriding fear of the idea of freedom of expression taking root in the population. Here was a state with an unsurpassed cradle-to-grave system of mind control which still cripples many in the expatriate world as well as those in South Africa.

Allow me a short preamble before I get on to Rodrigues. Judging by the many racist comments on social media, for those of you out there who often hark back to the good old days in an enslaved country, try reading the TRC(Truth and Reconciliation Commission) findings with an open mind as I did during research for my books. Only a stone would not be moved to tears the way I often was as I relived the searing tales of horror experienced by ordinary people and perpetrated by many in power, especially those in the military or police force, none more so than members of police death squads like the now infamous Koevoet and Vlakplaas. The TRC records are like an endless tragic epic with more than enough material to satisfy a violent movie director like Quentin Tarantino. Many of the TRC transcripts should be compulsory reading at South African senior schools to educate them of the ultimate horrors of an abuse of State power as we knew it in the BAD old days.

Apartheid had many tragically sad aspects. A few included poverty and its impact on crime, health, malnutrition; the pass/influx control system; who you could love, sleep with, marry; violence whether criminal or police-driven by the blinkered desire to maintain White supremacy at all costs; freedom of speech, banning of people, books, music, ideas; restricted access to all public facilities from toilets and benches in public places to parliamentary representation; where you could or could not live, swim, go to school, sit in the bus or train, separate taxis, go to school, university … It was all-encompassing stuff which grossly distorted our perceptions of each other as a nation, as a people, as individuals. In our alienation, we were often unaware of what life was like on the other side of the great racial divide, including our music preferences.

So what was so special about Rodrigues aka Sixto Jesu Rodriguez aka Sugar Man? I did not know of the Latino American singer at all until recently when my Australian literary agent mentioned his name to me. I was surprised to see the first Google reference to Rodriguez referred to his songs as “anti-apartheid anthems” as reported in an article in VOA in July 2012. Had I slept through a part of the revolution that toppled apartheid in South Africa? Having been an astute observer of events in the country I had to explore this mysterious character. 

His two albums had flopped in the USA. Unknown to the singer, his music struck a chord amongst rebellious anti-establishment White South Africans who took to his music and bought thousands of bootlegged copies of his music – Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality in 1971. His rebellious lyrics had struck a chord in puppetry-controlled young lives where even Afrikaner musicians emulated him with their songs with hidden messages. It’s so typical of the South Africa of the times that I neither knew who these musicians were nor did I know their music. They had followed in the footsteps of musical greats – even Beethoven’s ninth symphony, his Ode to Joy is regarded by some as an Ode to Freedom during oppressive European times. Maybe it’s hidden there in the following words: What custom strictly divided, All people become brothers, Or maybe in : Go on, brothers, your way, Joyful, like a hero to victory. Be embraced, Millions! The Ninth was used by Chilean protesters; Chinese students at Tiananmen Square; following the fall of the Berlin Wall; and others in their quest for liberty.

Rodrigues’ inimical lyrics and mesmerising voice captivated swathes of followers, unknown to the man himself who returned to a life as an obscure builder, labourer, odd-job man and renovator in his home town of Detroit, Michigan for the next 25+ years. His most popular songs were Sugar Man, I wonder and Anti-establishment Blues. The anti-authoritarian lyrics had found fertile soil in disillusioned White youth; albeit a small percentage of the population, his now ageing fans regarded Rodriguez as more popular than Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley. One of his fans, Stephen Segerman, led the search to track down Rodriguez in the USA. In 1998 following his discovery, the singer who had only sung in small smoky Detroit bars ended up singing at sold-out venues in all major South African centres for a belated recognition of Rodrigues’ superb music. The search for the most incredible 1970’s rock icon that never was, won the best documentary BAFTA and Academy awards in 2013.

Part of the enigma of a man who returned to the obscurity of his roots, was his failure in America and his ignorance of his major success in South Africa. So how did I NOT know of the man when his music was released in the 1970s? Despite being a reasonably knowledgable person, I had no idea of Rodrigues. I have asked friends and family if anyone knew of his music while in South Africa in the 70’s – no one had. Here was a perfect example of how alienated we were as a people in a country of much separation.

My music icon was jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim, the ex-Dollar Brand before he converted to Islam. Here was a more well-known figure whose Mannenberg is a piece of music also regarded as an anti-apartheid anthem to many Black South Africans. At least an exiled Ibrahim had significant cross-over credibility in the zoned African and Coloured townships throughout the country.

Ibrahim regarded the overthrowing of apartheid as a revolution performed in four-part harmony. How many White South Africans knew of his music? How many foot- or finger-tapped their way through Mannenberg? How many would have spoken the only words in the 13-minute piece when Ibrahim calls out – “Oh Mannenberg, julle kan maar New York toe gaan, maar ons bly hier in die Mannenbrg.” (Oh Mannenberg, youse can go to New York, but we’ll stay here in Mannenberg). This township was and still is infamous for poverty, violence, crime and social failure at many levels, a result of the dislocation of tens of thousands of lives from Group Areas displacements from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Over a quarter of a million Blacks were displaced under the Group Areas Act to the sandy, wind-swept Cape Flats from several scenic areas around the Cape Peninsula – described by Sir Francis Drake over 400 years ago, as the most scenic in the world. The most infamous of the displacements was the bulldozing of the homes of over 60,000 people in the more central area of District Six in the 1960s. The at times haunting music of Mannenberg, is virtually a monumental musical tribute to the many lives affected on the Cape Flats, the dumping ground of apartheid in Cape Town where his music was popular amongst the oppressed.

Much of Ibrahim’s music has its roots in Cape Music. Some of his pieces are reminiscent of Cape Town’s annual Minstrel Festival with their “liedjies” (little songs) being almost a form of oral history from the days of slavery to the latter days of bondage. Ibrahim’s jazz reeks of the country’s issues with titles like Mandela, Ekaya(Home), African River, Anthem for the New Nation, Elsies River, Cape Town Carnival, Underground in Africa, Liberation Dance … to mention a few. It's no wonder Ibrahim ended up living in exile for many years from 1976.

Like Rodriguez’s music, one never heard the world-renowned Abdullah Ibrahim’s music on the state-controlled media, the SABC.

[Part 2 of 3 to follow soon. Stay safe!]


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