Friday, 11th September, 2009









On Friday I witnessed one of South Africa's guitar maestros in action, a living musical legend. Although Tony was born in Zimbabwe and lived in South Africa, he has been based in the United Kingdom for a couple of years now but it was in February 2005 that I saw him along with guitar buddy virtuoso Steve Newman (also of Tananas fame) play The Cambridge Folk Club, albeit at a different location to the present one, The Golden Hind. I have also seen Tony within a group format some years back in South Africa, after the release of a couple of his earlier albums, but it is as a solo artist in a small, intimate venue that I really love to watch him play, where the performance becomes one where you feel almost personally connected to the musician. Tony's finger-picking style forms an almost perfect combination with the beautiful melodies his songs weave. His funny, anecdotal stories and tales of Africa are warm and honest and his dry, witty humour comes to the fore. I may watch him play songs he has played many times before but I never tire of hearing them again. They remain mesmerising and engaging and you come away from a performance feeling deeply satisfied and entertained, your soul enriched.

Although his style encompasses folk, classical, jazz and blues, a good portion of Tony's music is infused with a strong African flavour that I love best. As someone once wrote of Tony: "If one listens to closely to Tony Cox's extraordinary guitar playing, all that dust and bush and wide African landscape is very much apparent in the music he creates. It is like his musical umbilical cord still reaching back, still forming the present and giving his music an edge quite like no other guitar player." The kwela sound is therefore very much an integral part of Tony's musical language and may be witnessed on Bluegrass Safari, a combination of the bluegrass and kwela. On songs such as Dollar's F, Tony plays goema, a musical style that evolved from the early days of Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa and one that is perhaps more evident in the music and playing of Steve Newman. Tony loves to interact with his audiences and it is during Kwe-Kwe (originally Que-que), the song dedicated to the sound of a bullfrog, that the audience gets to participate. And with this song, it works every time!

Kwela is a happy, often pennywhistle-based, street music from southern Africa with jazzy underpinnings. It evolved from the marabi sound (a  keyboard style (often using cheap pedal organs) that had a musical link to American jazz, ragtime and blues, with roots deep in the African tradition) and brought South African music to international prominence in the 1950s. The music has its roots in South Africa but later adaptations of this and many other African folk idioms have permeated Western music (listen to Graceland by Paul Simon) and give modern South African music, particularly jazz, much of its distinctive sound and lilting swagger. The music style is rooted in Malawi and was brought to South Africa by Malawian migrants. They blended the music with Traditional South African music and 'Kwela' was born in South Africa and popularized as South African music. The word "kwela" is taken from the Zulu for "get up", though in township slang it also referred to the police vans, the "kwela-kwela". Thus it could be an invitation to join the dance, as well as serving as a warning. It is said that the young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners also acted as lookouts to warn those enjoying themselves in the shebeens (illicit beer drinking establishments) of the arrival of the police.

After having switched to his beautiful custom-made Mervyn Davis baritone guitar, he now seems to be using it as his sole instrument for live performances, which he talks about during his performance. Although I remain essentially a musical fan of Tony's music, he has become somewhat of a friend over a period of time and signed a copy of his latest cd, Audient, with an appropriate and apt introduction, as used in one of his e-mails.


























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