Sarah-Leah Pimentel

I once read that we respond to music because its beats mirror our heartbeat. This rhythmic beating was the first thing we heard in the womb, and it comforted us. We lose ourselves in music because it reminds us of a time when we felt safe and protected.

Perhaps this is also the reason why we are more receptive to messages when they are communicated through music. They become the soundtrack to our lives but also shape the way we perceive the world around us.

I have a playlist that contains all of my favourite South African songs that I listened to in my teen and university years. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I pull out these songs and replay them, often reflecting on the memories they evoke. Each one tells a story:

“I wonder” by Sixto Rodriguez

As a teenager, one of my favourite spots to hang out was the home of a childhood friend. Her parents were hippies, and her dad was a journalist. He had some cool street cred: during apartheid some of his articles had been censored. This was a family that didn’t much care for the rules of the apartheid state.

Their home was filled with music. Many Saturday afternoons we’d find ourselves sitting on the kitchen floor, listening to her dad play guitar and singing songs. Many of these were songs that the apartheid regime had banned. It was here that I first heard The Beatles – banned by the conservative Christian regime because John Lennon had said in an interview that the band was more famous than Jesus Christ.

But it was also in this house that I first listened to Sixto Rodriguez. Liberal white teenagers throughout South Africa all had copies of his music. No one ever bought an album. No one was really sure how Rodriguez’s music had made it to South African in the first place!

His songs were never played on the radio – having been banned for mentioning sex, drugs, and anti-establishment themes.

Yet, hundreds of thousands of young people listened to Rodriguez’s music throughout the 70s and 80s. His songs gave voice to the frustration and disillusion that many white youth felt about living under censorship. Many did not believe in the ideals of the apartheid state but felt powerless to change them.

Instead, they lived in fear of being conscripted to their year of military service and being sent to Angola to support that country’s opposition in its civil war against the communist-inspired ruling party. This was a foreign war that had the full backing of the apartheid state against the rooi gevaar (the red danger), in reference to communism.

Teenagers and university students found solace in Rodriguez’s music. He gave voice to their desire to enjoy the same freedoms as their peers in the United States and Europe. For them, Rodriguez was a cult hero.

Rodriguez was also an enigma. In the days before the Internet, legend became truth. All they really knew was that Rodriguez was an American and his music epitomized the “make love not war” generation. Some said that he was still alive. Other said that he killed himself on stage during a concert.

Whatever the story, Rodriguez spoke to a disenchanted generation. One of his songs, “I wonder,” asked the questions that plagued American youth traumatized by the Vietnam war. But it could have just as easily been about South Africans fighting in Angola, or freedom fighters battling the apartheid state for the right to enjoy the same rights as white South Africans:

I wonder about the tears in children’s eyes

And I wonder about the soldier that dies,
I wonder if this hatred will ever end,
I wonder and worry my friend.

Someone did wonder who this music man might be.

With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, a Rodriguez fan created a website dedicated to the enigmatic musician. Sometime later, this message came to the attention of one of Sixto’s daughters. She was surprised that someone in South Africa even knew her father’s name, let alone his music.

I wonder how many times you have been had

And I wonder how many dreams have gone bad

You see, Rodriguez and his music hadn’t gained much traction in the United States, and he eventually gave up on his dream of being a professional musician and worked most of his life as a labourer. If he did pick up a guitar, it was to entertain friends and family.

He had no idea that he was the soundtrack for an entire generation of South African youth. He had no idea that his music kept their dreams alive or that he gave them the courage to join the counter-establishment movement to oppose apartheid.

In 1998 Sixto Rodriguez arrived in South Africa and played to six sold-out shows. He came back to South Africa several times. I had never seen Rodriguez live, but had been a fan ever since I first heard his music at my friend’s house in the early 90s.

In early 2016, I finally got the opportunity to watch Sixto Rodriguez play to a packed stadium in Cape Town. As I watched the show, I sensed that this might be one of his last tours. Old age had caught up with him and he needed his daughter’s assistance throughout the show.

Despite that, the man I saw on stage was the one who finally got to see the “dreams [that] have gone bad” come to life unexpectedly. He lost himself in guitar riffs, and at times barely seemed to notice his audience. It was as if his spirit had left the stage and entered some other dimension. Perhaps it was the world of his dreams that he had visualized many times but never been able to find in the dark, smoky Detroit clubs where he played to an indifferent audience.

After every few songs, he seemed to return to his body. He sat on a stool on the stage and told stories, gave counsel, reminisced. It was as if he knew that the crowd to whom he was playing were not just nameless faces. They were the youths whose lives he had marked many decades before with his music. Now in their 50s and 60s, these men and women had faced their own illusions and disillusions. What played out between Sixto Rodriguez and his audience that night was a dialogue about dreams lost and found.

Unknown to him, he inspired countless people to imagine that a different country was possible. In the twilight years of his life, these same people restored his lost dreams. They gave him everything. Now on stage, he gave them his everything:

I wonder about the love you can’t find

And I wonder about the loneliness that’s mine
I wonder how much going you have got
And I wonder about your friends that are not.

Forty years on, Rodriguez found friends he never knew he had. Heading home after the concert, I was overcome by the love story that had played out between this obscure artist and an entire generation. Net in Suid Afrika [only in South Africa]. Only in South Africa can the impossible become possible. Net in Suid Afrika do miracles happen.

(…to be continued…)

Transadaptation Volume 4 – Material Dissent

January: A Blinding Light and Then, All Darkness – Jonay Quintero Hernández (Spain)

February: The Opportunist – Lauren Voaden (United Kingdom)

March: A Stranger in my City – Alejandra Baccino (Uruguay)

April: A South African Soundtrack – Sarah-Leah Pimentel (South Africa)

May: Full Circle – Ina Maria Vogel (Germany)

June: La Lluvia en Bogotá – Adriana Uribe (Columbia)

July: Freedom – Krisztina Janosi (Hungary)

August: A Bus Ride – Svetlana Molchanova (Russia)

September: Transcendence – Armine Asryan (Nane Sevunts) (Armenia)

October: Motherhood – Marilin Guerrero Casas (Cuba)

November: To be announced – (hopefully) Gennady Bondarenko (Ukraine)

December: Open – Seyit Ali Dastan (Turkey)

Background – Context

Transadaptation Volume 3: Evanescent – Young Adulthood Transadapted, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2022)

Transadaptation Volume 2: Conceived – Childhood Transadapted, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2021)

Transadaptation Volume 1: In the Middle – Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2020)

Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists by Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

La Syncrétion of Polarization and Extremes Transposée, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2018)

L’anthologie of Global Instability Transpuesta, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2017)

From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin: German and Russian Stories Transposed to Modern-day America, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2013)

Emblems and stories on the international community

Perception by country – Transposing emblems, articles, short stories and reports from around the world

Credits: Jagersfontein, South Africa – On the street – Grobler du Perez (Shutterstock)

Source: The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed

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