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Guestwords: Finding Sugar Man

Thu, 08/24/2023 - 10:56

“How often,” asked Jennifer Landes in The East Hampton Star on June 26, 2012, “does a true Hollywood ending happen in real life?” A question sufficient to intrigue me and lead me to chart a path to Guild Hall the following week for a screening of “Searching for Sugar Man” and a conversation between its Swedish director, Malik Bendjelloul, and Alec Baldwin.

For those unfamiliar with the film, the obituaries of “Sugar Man,” Sixto Rodriguez, who died on Aug. 8, have brought that Hollywood ending to fresh life, the story of a singer obscure in his native Detroit, indeed in the United States, whose music resonated in homes and clubs in South Africa, half a world away, where audiences celebrated his tours when he finally undertook them, only recently aware of his fame there. 

Much of the credit for that discovery, and the uniting of the hearer and the heard, goes to Malik, who pieced it together in conversations and on camera. He shared the story with Alec Baldwin and the audience that evening, and, when asked how Sixto himself felt about the film, replied, “Why don’t you ask him himself?”

That was the cue for Sixto to emerge from the Guild Hall wings, the cadence of his voice and tone no less rhythmical for want of song, and share with us the story of a family that had emigrated from Mexico to discover jobs and music, the latter valiantly vinyled but largely unsold. At least here in the United States; in apartheid South Africa pirated and bootlegged copies led to a following wholly his own.

It was a story he was to share again, always fresh in narration, at the United Nations, where the film was screened a few weeks later as part of its Unlearning Intolerance program, with a conversation with him and Malik following, enriched by strains of songs he sang with an accompanying guitar. I was working there at the time and invited them to dinner after; we went to the dim and ebullient, and now sadly closed, Kurio on 92nd Street.

We looked back to our first evening together, if not actually together, in East Hampton, where the landscape, Malik said, reminded him vividly of Sweden, its uninterrupted gentleness of green suddenly giving way to an unexpected solitary home, or store, or entire township. He spoke of Mary’s Marvelous, its smoothies “music in a blender,” of the delight in the discovery of food from his homeland at the Living Room at the Maidstone, helmed by James Carpenter, and the excitement of stumbling upon a store dedicated entirely to long-playing records, so reminiscent of Cape Town’s Mabu Vinyl, where Sixto’s music found its first home.

How, I asked Sixto, in a question whose variants must have been posed to him innumerable times, did that happen? He took a sip of his iced tea and asked, “Have you heard of Jerry Garcia?” I admitted I had. “You know, I was born just three weeks before he was. We were contemporaries, but all too briefly. I think I can best answer your question in his song.”

The restaurant had thinned, there was only a couple at a table a little distance away. “Do you mind if I sing?” he asked them, and received bemused affirmation that they would not. He unsheathed his guitar and, in a voice mellowed but not diminished with time, shared with us the opening lyric from “Ripple.”

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine

And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice come through the music?

Would you hold it near as it were your own?

“Somehow my voice came through the music, somehow they held it near as if it were their own. I have no other answer.”

Malik smiled. “He gives a new answer each time. Every answer is true.”

Midnight was drawing in upon us. He and Sixto had many more journeys, many more screenings ahead. And, just a few months away, its hope and possibilities unformed, the Academy Awards.

When they did take place, Malik and “Sugar Man” won the Oscar we were all rooting for. For Sixto, it was a happy punctuation but one that allowed him to remain himself.

No one appears to have with certainty sensed what it meant to Malik — exultation and pride, yes, but also, at 35, the daunting compulsion of still more laurels to weave and to earn. And no one appears to have with certainty sensed what it was that propelled him from the platform of a Stockholm station into the path of an incoming train a year later.

When I heard the news, I called Sixto. His voice was as broken as his heart must have been. Our conversation was fitful, its many pauses too irresolute to bring it to an end. Then, suddenly, he asked, “Do you remember ‘Ripple’?”

How could I not, its ultimate shade of magic to that splendid evening. “Hold on a minute,” he said. A brief moment later, I could hear him pick up the receiver again and the soft strum of a warming guitar.

And then, that evocative voice.

You, who choose to lead, must follow

But, if you fall, you fall alone

If you should stand, then who’s to guide you?

If I knew the way I would take you home.

Ramu Damodaran, who lives in Springs, was the first chief of the United Nations Academic Impact initiative and, before that, a TV news anchor and radio disc jockey in India.


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