By Ramu Damodaran*
NEW YORK. 6 September 2023 (IDN) — It was eminent Hindustani classical music singer Malini Nambiar who described Sixto Rodriguez best as a “true Karmayogi.” Like all words and phrases woven in the intimacy of a particular language, the term weakens in translation, but the interpretation of an individual who performs actions without preoccupation with their personally beneficial results, comes close.
She had just seen “Searching for Sugarman”, a documentary about Sixto directed by Malik Bendjelloul, which was screened at the United Nations as part of the “Unlearning Intolerance” series of its Academic Impact initiative. It captured the story of a singer, once obscure in his home country, the United States, who had flamed fan following a half world away, in South Africa, particularly during its age of apartheid when his songs were interpreted as powerful protest.
Dramatic as was the film’s portrayal of the bridge that music created from Detroit to Durban, those on either shore unaware of the other, what proved even more so at the screening was the wholly unexpected appearance of Sixto himself, closeted through the duration of the screening in an interpreter’s booth that looked on to the hall.
That was Sixto, unwilling to remotely appear thief of the thunder that Malik and his team could justly claim. Their lens captured how audiences triumphalised his tours when he finally undertook them, only just aware of the fame he had not known, journeys that finally united the hearer and the heard. Their deft congruence of conversation and camera captured the cadence of Sixto’s voice and tone, as rhythmical when he spoke as when he sang, sharing with us the story of a family that had emigrated from Mexico to discover jobs and music, the latter valiantly vinyled but largely unsold in the United States, even as pirated and bootlegged copies in insurgent and resurgent South Africa curated a following wholly his own.
We had a full house that evening. There was the now sadly late Lynn Franklin, literary agent to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had, with the “Arch”, seen Sixto in concert in Cape Town the previous year. There was United Nations Under Secretary-General Vijay Nambiar; as I saw him strum his fingers to the tune of Sixto’s song I wondered whether his mind revived recollections of the many stations he had served as India’s ambassador, whether in Algeria or Afghanistan, China or Pakistan, where music and the spontaneity of creation were so often the idiom of social change and its promise.
I was working at the United Nations at the time and invited Sixto and Malik to dinner after; we went to the dim and ebullient, and now sadly closed, Kurio on New York’s 92nd Street. It was my turn to pose the questions.
How, I asked Sixto, and its variants must have been posed to him innumerably, did that happen, the unknown at home being the revered known abroad? 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 just a couple at a table a little distance away. “Do you mind if I sing?” he asked them and received bemused affirmation 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 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. Manager and mixologist China was clingwrapping the shards of green which were the essence of her heralded jalapeño martinis. Malik and Sixto had many more journeys, many more screenings ahead. And, just a few months away, its hope and possibilities unphrased, the Academy awards.
When they did take place, Malik and “Sugarman” won the Oscar we were all rooting for. For Sixto, it was a happy punctuation point but one that allowed him to remain himself; true to his tradition, he was not there at the ceremony, not wanting to appear to upstage Malik, to whom no one appears to have with certainty sensed what it meant. 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.
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.
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.
An earlier version of this literary article appeared in the East Hampton Star
* Ramu Damodaran was the first Director of the United Nations Academic Impact initiative (UNAI) and President of the United Nations Staff Recreation Council. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Image source: SugarMan.org
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