South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

Enormous Flowers: Tony Cox’s compelling musical mastery shines

Enormous Flowers: Tony Cox’s compelling musical mastery shines

One of South Africa’s most seasoned and celebrated guitarists and composers, Tony Cox, an early intercultural pioneer, has collaborated with a stellar collection of South African musicians including Victor Masondo, Godfrey Mgcinga, Barry van Zyl, Roland Scheepers, Adam Howard, Joe Arthur, Faith Kekana and Stella Khumalo to produce a new album of measured and compelling musical mastery. Cox, who has traditionally expressed himself through his guitar, has unleashed his songwriting skill and voice on Enormous Flowers, a collection of 13 original songs. By MARIANNE THAMM.

You know pop psychologist Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule? That you need to deliberately practise whatever it is you’re good at for 10,000 hours to become “world-class” in your field?

Well, there is just no way of calculating the combined virtuosity of the seasoned collection of musicians and singers who have collaborated with Cox on his new album and it is this rich vein of talent, experience and technical prowess which catapults Enormous Flowers into the realm of an instant but timeless South African classic.

How can you go wrong with the legendary Victor Masondo on bass, jazz musician Roland Scheepers on keyboards, Godfrey Mgcinga on percussion, Barry van Zyl on drums, Adam Howard on flugelhorn and trumpet, Joe Arthur who was responsible for string and horn arrangements and of course, Cox on acoustic and electric guitars. Adding their voices to this formidable formation are Isicathamiya a capella group Amavevane, Stella Khumalo, Faith Kekana, Nonhlanhla Mduli, Thuli Cox and Joe Arthur.

Tony Cox and his guitar – his unique affinity for and with the instrument – are part of South Africa’s musical tapestry. Over the years, along with fellow guitar virtuoso Steve Newman, Cox has pioneered and defined an authentic and instantly recognisable signature polymorphous sound, combining a variety of influences from African to jazz and blues, folk, rock and soul.

Early in his career (which has spanned at least four decades) Cox abandoned his voice and found expression mostly through his guitar, an instrument which, if you have ever watched him play it, acts as a physical extension of the musician himself.

With Enormous Flowers, Cox has bravely ventured out from behind the guitar, or perhaps combined with the guitar, to offer a selection of songs that reflect the artist’s joys and concerns as well as his satirical take on the politics of contemporary life.

Not every musician or songwriter, however, makes for a great lyricist. You need the soul of a poet to shape and hone words that will give effect to the musical arrangements and allow a song to leave the confines of the writer’s mind and travel through the notes into the heart of the listener.

And it is here that Cox also pleasantly surprises. His 13 songs deal delicately with a variety of subjects, poverty, politics (and here he traces a great line back to the tradition of lefty political folk music in South Africa), raising a child, love, disillusionment and tenderness.

Personal favourites are Beast, a sparse and plaintive exploration of cruelty and violence against women, the title track, Enormous Flowers (with Masondo’s fat bass and Scheepers’ lilting keyboards) a jaunty, jazzy celebration of endurance, Good Morning, a languid and layered riff on being a parent, Sunday Papers which is about, well, the Sunday Papers and how they make you feel.

The single off the album, Hop (also known as Voetsek/Shut-up or the House of Parliament Blues) is a toe-tappingly infectious satirical look at the national assembly and the familiar cast of bloody agents who represent us there.

Why Cox has opted to hide his vocal talent under a bushel (or should we rather say between the frets and strings) for so long is a mystery. He possesses a versatile vocal range and performs with a deceptive ease, bolstered and buoyed by the voices he has gathered to give expression to his words.

Enormous Flowers, while stylistically varied, is thematically coherent with the songs gently nudging each other. The musicians on this album demand as much attention as Cox himself and in that sense it is an accomplished, seamless and totally authentic offering, impressively arranged, produced and executed.

With Enormous Flowers Cox and his collaborators have proved that in a world of infinite and instant musical variety and possibility and one-hit wonders, there is no substitute for experience and the finesse and talent of this gathering of career professionals. Btw if you’re planning on a drive, Enormous Flowers will make the road, and your worries, melt away. DM

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