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Cox, Tony (South Africa)  
Tony Cox

IN the Sixties, motorists who travelled the potted roads between African towns were accustomed to seeing pedestrians in the middle of nowhere. Villagers, perhaps, walking long distances to trading stores or visiting relatives in remote settlements. But a nine-year-old white kid toting a large dreadnought guitar on the 20km stretch between Redcliff and Kwe-Kwe. Back in 1963, Not an everyday sight in what was then Rhodesia, but nevertheless that kid, Tony Cox, became a familiar feature on that road as he made his way to and from lessons with the only guitar tutor in the district. And not your average guitar tutor, either.

But we're jumping ahead of ourselves. Those who know Cox -- and not just as an award-winning acoustic guitarist with a remarkable finger-picking style and several acclaimed albums and a string of extraordinary shows under his belt -- know that he can be possessed of a single-minded determination that borders on the mulish. If he wants to achieve something, then he goes out of his way to do so. Often through plain old-fashioned, exhausting graft. It's a trait, though, that his mother apparently also possessed. After all, it was she who first noticed her son's fascination with the music made by Rueben, the family's major-domo, on a variety of indigenous instruments, particularly the mbira, or thumb piano, and then insisted that Tony should also take up music lessons. But there was only one person in the district who gave lessons -- one Archie Perreira who lived in Kwe-Kwe and who, bizarrely enough, taught Hawaiian guitar, an instrument about as African or as pertinent to the lives of white Rhodesian setters as, well, the Albanian nose flute.

guitar (acoustic / semi-acoustic), guitar
Genre: folk, African Jazz
Tony Cox
And so the young Tony Cox became a familiar sight on that road. Guitar lessons with Perreira must have also offered, if not overtly then subliminally, the boy a glimpse of a way of life outside the stultifying environment of life in a mining town in the Zimbabwean midlands. While it may have been an exciting place for a boy to grow up in, it was still an industrial town in the boondocks. Tony's father was a foreman at the town's foundry, and he often took his son to work with him. The boy may have thrilled to the sound of industry, the clang and thunder of steel works, but it was another sound that would eventually take his soul; something clicked with Archie -- scraping and sliding a steel bar over strings may evoke images of swaying palms, hula-hula girls, pineapple orgies and large drinks with little umbrellas in them, but it certainly struck a responsive chord with Tony. The lessons came to an end when Archie moved back to Lisbon and the Cox family settled in Salisbury, now Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. But it soon became apparent just how exclusive the Hawaiian lessons were; it was only through a school friend that Tony experienced what could be termed the conventional guitar-playing style. Abandoning the high-set string action and the steel slide, Tony began to learn chord shapes and strumming techniques. This went on for a number of years until the family left the country for Cape Town, South Africa, and it was there, at the age of 19, that the serious stuff began: classical guitar, boning up on the right-hand techniques, the plunge into the great genre pool: ragtime, blues, jazz, folk, rock, indigenous African stuff. Hacking it out at folk clubs, a style was developed and, more importantly, the reputation began to grow.

While he threw himself into solo guitar playing, it was at this time that he met Steve Newman. They went on to become one of the most widely-recognised guitar duos in South Africa. Cox and Newman. Newman and Cox. As a collaboration, they so grew in stature that, for a while, like Lennon/McCartney or Rogers/Hart, it was impossible to imagine the one without the other. It was equally impossible, however, to deny that, as contributors to that partnership, they both brought to the table elements of solo performing styles that blew away their audiences. Tony was now developing a compositional and instrumental style that defied musical classification. With the rigour and precision of classical technique, he was throwing into the mix ingredients of blues, rock, ragtime, jazz and African styles to achieve an eclectic yet integrated and distinctive sound. Together with Newman, he was doing things that people just hadn't heard before. Not for nothing was their acclaimed 1981 show called "101 Ways to use an Acoustic Guitar". Just 101 ways? It was a conservative estimate, by most critics' estimations.

The show led to an invitation to support Irish singer Geraldine Branagan when she toured South Africa in 1982. It was an odd mix: this dynamic guitar act with Branagan's cod country schmaltz. But the exhaustive tour -- 92 performances before conservative audiences -- did raise enough money for Tony to travel to England, where he met up once again with Steve and the duo began performing extensively in and around London as well as in Oslo, Norway, before returning to Africa. And more work. In 1987, he was appointed guitarist for Lesley Rae Dowling's band, as the singer undertook a 23-date South African tour. Following that, he became musical director for both Amanda Strydom and David Kramer. Two years later, he was flown to Malawi to work with singer-songwriter Wambali Mkandawire as producer, arranger and guitarist for Wambali's next album. At the same time he composed the score for the international feature film, "The Sandgrass People". Film is a medium Tony enjoys; he has written a number of TV documentary scores and hopes to make further contributions to South African movies.

Tony Cox at Splashy fen festival
But while the work was there, it was also -- paradoxically -- a difficult time for South African artists. If the national broadcaster, the SABC, helped define South African musical tastes, then it did so on regimented, racially-classified lines. African audiences were treated to great slabs of traditional gospel and so-called vernacular music. White audiences, also divided by language, were force-fed a bland diet of North Atlantic pop, Euro-crud and home-grown lobotomised versions of "overseas" stuff. The hills in these parts of Africa were alive, then, with the sound of mucus. The local mainstream music industry were no better. With little in the way of promotional support, or broadcast support, home-grown talent struggled to receive broader audiences. Tony was no exception. An early 90s' album, "In.To.Nation", has all but disappeared -- despite critical acclaim. It was only through exhaustive live work -- hard gigging, if you will -- that Tony managed to foster and develop his audience.

In early 1996, Tony released "Cool Friction", an album for a young label, Sheer Sound, that stressed his abilities as both a solo acoustic musician and a band leader. It was so well-received by critics, that Tony put together a band for the Main Festival at that year's National Festival of the Arts. And thus was born the Cool Friction Band, with Paul Hanmer (piano, keyboards), Barry van Zyl (drums, percussion) and Chris Tokolon (saxophone, flute). After three sold-out shows at Grahamstown, the band decided to continue working together. "Cool Friction", meanwhile, went onto be nominated for an FNB award for Best Contemporary Jazz. In January 1998, Tony and the Cool Friction Band began recording new material. This project, "Looking for Zim", suggested a return to roots and focused on Tony's childhood memories in Zimbabwe. It was during these early years, after all, that he first began to cross cultural boundaries through his music.

Although Tony's previous projects are largely regarded as instrumental collections, the album "Looking for Zim" (Sheer Sound) features performances from such diverse vocalists as Wendy Oldfield and Wambali Mkandawire from Malawi. Other guest artists include trumpeter Bruce Cassidy, trombonist John Davies and Kenny Mataba on harmonica. Back in 1991 Tony Cox walked away with the prestigious "Pick of the Fringe" award at the 1991 National Festival of the Arts at Grahamstown for a show called "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Acoustic Guitarist". It's a title, I believe, that could also serve this biography. His has been a journey -- or rather, pilgrimage -- through so many diverse musical styles and forms that, after more than 25 years as a professional performer, he (and he alone) is representative of a singularly unique genre of Southern African music. It's a music that, through its eclecticism and diversity, has been described as difficult to pigeonhole. But, for those looking for a classification, a label, why not try simply "Cox, Tony"? He really is a genre of one. - Andrew Donaldson.

Contact Details:

visit Tony's website... "a site for acoustic fingerstyle guitarists, musical dreamers and one or two crazies...."
  Recordings : Cox, Tony

featuring Tony's favourite Southern African guitarists, musicians and friends. 
**voted best instrumental album at the South African Music Awards (Sama 9) 2003**
About Time

Matabele Ants

click here for more about these and other recordings by : Cox, Tony

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