CityFolk: Sixto ‘Sugar Man’ Rodriguez makes the most of his musical moment

Sixto Rodriguez plays CityFolk on Sept. 16.

Michigan Avenue runs right through the Motor City — a giant spoke on a giant wheel.
Sixto Rodriguez knows all about Michigan Avenue. He was born in 1942 at 831 Michigan, above a bar, the sixth child of Mexican immigrants parents.
“I was born on top of a bar about four blocks from Detroit Centre. I can’t recall the name. I’ve probably blocked it out. My sister says she remembers when the soldiers marched down Michigan Avenue after the Second World War was over.”
At 75, Rodriguez still lives in Detroit about two blocks from Wayne State University from where he collected a degree in philosophy in 1981. In 2013, he got an honorary doctorate from the same institution.
Despite all its problems, Rodriguez loves his home town.
“Detroit has the same street design as Paris. You can walk it. That appeals to me. You have to catch the breeze.
“I’m urban more so than rural. Detroit has that kind of international point. It’s a French city founded in 1701. That’s my criticism about Detroit. We are still nowhere. You know what I mean. We shouldn’t have some of these problems.
Detroit was/is a tough place, he acknowledges, “you noticed it, but you didn’t pay attention to it.”
His early life was not easy and the struggle of his parents and his family is reflected in the political sensibility he brings to his songwriting and his improbable musical career.
Rodriguez, as he is known professionally, is coming to CityFolk on Sept. 16 as part of a Canadian tour. While he has been many times to countries such as Australia and especially South Africa, he’s not been here often. The first question the veteran traveller wants an answer to is what kind of clothes should he wear.
“I’ve been to Australia six times and South Africa six times,” he said in an interview, “all the other countries too. It’s an amazing thing to do music, a privilege.
“I encourage all the young bloods to do it too because it’s a passport out (of a difficult place), you know what I mean.
“Today music has grown so much. It’s global. They don’t have to please the guy down the street, they can go out of town.”
Rodriguez sure gets out of town now. “That’s my life now, since 1998.”
It is a story that reminds one of a line from the old hymn Amazing Grace that goes ‘I was lost but now I’m found.’
“I have felt that way really,” he says. “It’s possible for everyone. That’s the message.”

Rodriguez was the inspiration for a documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, was made by fans of his in South Africa who went looking for their hero. Rodriguez’s first album Cold Fact, released in 1970, had a political message that resonated in South Africa, then under the repressive apartheid regime. The record was banned, but copies still circulated underground. It also became popular in Australia, Botswana and Namibia.

The film won an Oscar and a BAFTA and has been widely seen and received favourably. Since the release of the film, Rodriguez’s career has resumed in earnest. He’s played some of biggest stages including the Sydney Opera House (twice), Radio City Music Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, in London, England and the Glastonbury and Coachella festivals. In Johannesburg recently he played before more than 12,000 patrons. A live album of an Australian tour was released in 2016.

This amazing, improbable journey began on Michigan Avenue where he was introduced to music by his brother Jesus.
“My brother Jesus (Jessie) is over 21. We are here in Detroit celebrating his birthday. It was his guitar that got me started. He always wondered why it was out of tune when he came home. He was my role model.
“We were a big family of eight. He was a little bit older. He was one of the leaders for me. He brought the guitar into the house and also records by people like Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. He got out there.”
Rodriguez’s musical journey has been in fits and starts. There was some early success with recordings in the early 1970s, but by 1976 he was out of music and working in various jobs involving physical labour. He bought his current home that year. It was in rough shape but he fixed it up himself.
While he was in the business of living, his music was outselling Elvis Presley in South Africa, of all places.
“I discovered South Africa. Johannesburg, Capetown, Durban, it’s beautiful there. I never thought I ‘d be there at all.”
Nowadays he is writing and touring and rediscovering his love of music, especially performing.
“I am writing a lot because who knows about tomorrow.
Even in his 70s, he says, “I’ve got the energy. The way I do it now is I have a staff. They help me so much. There are so many things for me to do. It’s a larger market. You need a passport and a bank account.”

Now that he’s become Rodriguez the industry, his head is spinning a bit. But “I do have a good time. We are balancing these tours so can get some rest. Now we know not to go at it too hard.

“It’s an industry, a business and an art form. What you have is a vocal signature. It takes a minute to get out there. You can recognize Dylan and Neil Young and Leonard Cohen right away. If you can get to that level you have something.”
“I’m a lucky man. I’ve got to write that book. I’ve got to put those lessons down.”
CityFolk presents Rodriguez
Where: City Stage, Lansdowne Park
When: Sunday, Sept.17 from 8:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Tickets and information:
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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.