But in a veritable parallel universe, after a bootleg copy of his first album reached South Africa, the musician’s songs became what one fan described as “the soundtrack of our lives,” fanning the flames of the anti-Apartheid movement as hundreds of thousands of copies were sold, with not one penny going to the musician and composer. Rodriguez morphed into a cryptic musical icon, surpassing the popularity of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in that country.
But then rumors swirled that Rodriguez had committed suicide. It wasn’t until decades later that two South Africans - an ardent fan and an investigative reporter - set out to find out how Rodriguez died. Only he didn’t. Piecing together obscure clues from the singer’s lyrics, they tracked down the musical icon in Detroit.
Rodriguez, who turned 70 in 2012, is the subject of the recently-released documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man” (purchase soundtrack), which opened to much acclaim at Sundance this year, reaping the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary. The singer/songwriter is now touring the United States and the world, spreading hope and inspiration to audiences who first knew his anthems of protest, as well as those who weren’t even born when his albums first appeared.
In an interview with About.com writer Linda Tagliaferro, Rodriguez commented on his renewed rise to fame, which included six concerts in South Africa, each in a jam-packed arena of 5,000 ticket holders, after a decades-long hiatus in performing. “I toured Australia in ’79 and ’81, but that’s the only thing that happened until 1996.” In that year, after being “rediscovered,” his South African fans thronged to see and hear him. “South Africa is a musical country with gorgeous people,” Rodriguez said. “My fan base in South Africa are Afrikaans, and they’ve been down there over 200 years. It was easy to be comfortable there.”
Rodriguez explained that he’s learned much since he first stood up in front of an audience as a young man. “I’m a self taught musician,” he explained, “and I’ve been chasing music since I was 16. [and I’ve learned that]. music is a business, an industry and an art form. It’s a free art from and anyone can enter it.”
He adds that performers must know learn how to approach this. “It can be instant rewards and long-term rewards. I did this when I was 16 and here it is at this late date, still helping me. So it’s in an investment in yourself.”
When asked how he hopes his music affects people, Rodriguez replied, “There are just so many elements involved in listening to music. . I think that music has different levels of appeal. For some musicians, like guitarists, they might notice the structure. Others might go into the lyrics, or listen to the riff of the lead guitar player. “
He comments that the process of performing at different venues and at different times also affects the music and the audience’s reactions to it. “Each night is different. We as musicians recreate a tune. It’s a living art.”
But what advice does he have for music lovers? He adds that although recording contributes to a wider audience, “I think that live music is the way to go.”