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The way we lived. 27. (Part1) Liberation music of Sixto Rodrigues, Abdullah Ibrahim & Vuyisile Mini

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Here’s hoping COVID-19 has not seriously affected you or your loved ones over the last few weeks. Hope is on the horizon as the vaccine now rolls out. I suspect we will have to learn to live with the virus and its future mutations, now already the dominant form in S Africa. Part of our future looks like annual jabs as we do with our flu shots.

The elbow tap greeting has become popular – I think the advisors got it wrong. They also tell us to sneeze into the elbow! I do the Namaste greeting with two hands together in front of me. I wonder if this 5,000-year old form of Hindu greeting was part of the early ways of limiting the spread of infections. So many Asian countries have drawn on eons of experience to control their Covid numbers as in Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and even China. It’s possible the Namaste greeting is part of their many years of experience – a lesson the most advanced countries in the world did not take up – read USA and UK in particular.

For now stay safe and well until you’ve had your flu shots.

SIXTO JESU RODRIGUES aka Sugar Man; ABDULLAH IBRAHIM; and VUYISILE MINI. Liberation Musicologists. [PART 3/3]

Sadly I only came to know of Rodriguez’s riveting music last year. Every line drips with torment, challenge and resistance. For liberal Whites he made it proper to protest. Rodriguez’s songs were tailor-made for the apartheid censor’s knife and for those disillusioned with the system. Let’s look at a few of them.

He sings about Sugar Man in his first album, Cold Fact,

Sugar man met a false friend

On a lonely dusty road

Lost my heart when I found it

It had turned to dead black coal

Silver magic ships you carry

Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane

Sugar man you’re the answer

That makes my questions disappear

Sugar man is a supplier of drugs brought in by silver magic ships – planes? Or ordinary ships viewed by brains addled from amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana as the answer to make life easier? The drug-laced chorus is without compare with the last four lines above repeated a few times – to provide the ultimate answer?

At times he uses complex metaphors, with obscure parables for which the reclusive Rodriguez has not been forthcoming, adding to the mystery of a man who sang and guitared his way in smoke-filled dens while sitting with his back to small audiences in Detroit.

With his drug references, it was no wonder his songs failed the sensitive SABC censorship test. Some may have interpreted the lyrics as a reason for doing drugs, it seems to sanitise drug-taking. In such a sanctimonious country of law and order, where might was right and White was might, one could find solace of sorts. Here was a way to remove oneself from the horrors of a system that enslaved a nation, both Black and White. The evocative song, Cause, includes the memorable line:

So I set sail in a tear drop, and escaped beneath the door sill.

Read into this what you will, but it was way too tainted for the moral guardians in the police state as it was then.

There are echoes of more turbulent times in South Africa in Establishment Blues:

Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring

Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer

This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune

And that’s a concrete cold fact

South African gun shops sold out their stock within days during the events of 1960 and 1976 and then again mid-80s and the early 90s. Predicting the end of apartheid South Africa would have been treasonous – definitely far too revolutionary for the system of people management we had.

So how shocking was it for Rodrigues to sing about sex the way he did in I Wonder?

I wonder how many times you had sex

And I wonder do you know who’ll be next

I wonder I wonder I wonder I do …

The 1960s drugs, sex and R&R was too much for the prevailing strait-laced puritanism which would never let this one through to wild hormonal youth in particular!

In Cause, the lines are quite blasphemous from his second album, Coming From Reality:

And I talked to Jesus at the sewer

And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business

While the rain drank champagne

My Estonian Archangel came and got me wasted …

(The Archangel referred to a friend.)

In 1966 the Beetles were banned in South Africa for daring to proclaim they were more popular than Jesus. Just think of how the lines above would have curdled the censor’s blood!

In 1971 it could be said that no-one in the country was truly free when Rodrigues’ Cold Fact was released in SA. My favourite lines come from Climb up on my music in his second album.

Well, just climb up on my music,

And my songs will set you free,

Well, just climb up on my music,

And from there jump off with me.

Of course there are more lyrics with hidden and obvious references to a world in conflict, none more so than in the cloud cuckoo land of apartheid which was a disaster of major proportions, of social engineering gone seriously wrong.

Here was a country of 25 million in which they imprisoned half a million people a year for not having a pass to be in a part of their own country, then shipped them to their so-called Homelands not even known to many.

During the worst moments, South African cemeteries became police killing fields during Black funerals. The most extreme example of this was the death of 35 mourners at a funeral in Langa, Uitenhage on 21st March, 1985 – coincidentally on the 25th anniversary of the killing of over 70 anti-pass protesters in Sharpeville. The photo shows some of the 35 coffins. There was little national news coverage of this act of barbarity – imagine the result in the social media world of today!

Yet there are some out there who still call it the good old days. My foot!

Maybe to survive those trying times, one had to climb up on Rodriguez’s music and jump off with him on the ultimate high. Or just stay in Mannenberg on the Cape Flats with Ibrahim. Or toyi-toyi with Mini in his dances and songs and dreams of freedom.

Siyaya, siyaya We will go, we will

Siyaya noba kubi. We will, even in dreariness

Emabhulwini siyaya, To the Boers, we will go

Siyaya noba kubi, We will, even in misery,

Noba besidubula Even when they shoot us,

Siyaya… We will go …

Such was the stuff of liberation music which would eventually confine the old South Africa to the trash heap of history.


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