Two fifty-ish guys, greying hair falling on to squared shoulders, stage lights glinting on steel-rimmed spectacles, concentration fixed on flying fingers, playing guitar like there’s no tomorrow. The image is a South African musical institution that has lasted for more than 20 years. Other collaborations spring to mind. Johnny and Sipho, Lennon and McCartney, Kramer and Petersen, Page and Plant. That list includes Tony Cox and Steve Newman. Acoustic magicians. Sub-Saharan finger stylists with a pan-global and pan-genre attitude to guitar music.
A couple of sold-out performances at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre, coinciding with the pair’s back-to-back birthdays on January 24 and 25, reinforced the artistic bond between these two incomparable musicians and tied in with last year’s launch of their compilation CD, About Time.
I meet them in their dressing room prior to the show. Cox with his guitar nestling on his lap, Newman languidly chilled and lounging in a chair.
Each time our conversation strays to a specific tune Cox’s fingers whip briskly through the piece, as if reminding himself of the intricacies. They need no rehearsal to play together, the experience has become almost instinctual.
Newman is the elder stateman by two years. Originally from Salt River in Cape Town, he found his calling with a friend’s electric guitar, and lessons for his 13th birthday set the tone for an obsession that is now into its fourth decade.
Cox, born in the Zimbabwean mining town of Redcliff, has childhood memories of the family major domo’s ability with indigenous instruments. “I was hypnotised by Rueben’s fingers on the mbira,” he says. Early lessons in the Hawaiian guitar led to classical training and on into the 1970s folk era.
During the 1970s Newman played with show bands getting his first solo gig in 1976. Cox was on the national circuit. A chance meeting in a Claremont music shop in the mid-1970s brought them together, but it was not until 1981 that they took to the stage as a double act. One Hundred and One Ways to Use an Acoustic Guitar played on the lunch-time bill at the People’s Space Theatre in Long Street, and was eventually made into an album in 1983. Other recordings followed: Live in Durban, Live at the Planetarium.
Both also played electric rock guitar for years, but were settled into the acoustic discipline by the time they started collaborating. The experience is a visceral one. “A ‘Stratocaster’ is like a piece of furniture — no delicacy,” says Newman, “and the sound it makes is separated from the player by the amplifier, whereas I can feel an acoustic guitar vibrate right through me”.
The acoustic folk scene transformed itself into today’s world music and brought recognition that the music-world is wider than just England and the United States. “It would be silly to ignore the rest of the world,” says Newman.
“If we had continued being rockers, we would not have developed as artists. Rock was our childhood, some guys can’t seem to leave it alone, but we’ve gone way beyond that period.”
“There’s also a lot more sound-potential in an acoustic guitar,” says Cox. This is borne out in the percussive moments that weave throughout their music. Cuccaracha Nuevo features Newman drumming and scratching on the soundboard while holding a melody on the strings.
“Steve’s genius is being able to hear chord progressions that fit together,” says Cox. By modifying Julie Andrew’s version of Favourite Things, and introducing her to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Newman produced Dave and Julie, a musical tale of their ill-fated affair.
Audiences laugh a lot during their shows. Serious solo pieces intersperse with laconic comedy. Both are fans of Peter Sellars and Victor Borgia. “We’re entertainers, just guitar players, not celebrities,” grins Newman. “No one throws their panties at us.”
Both have developed individual careers. Cox is recently returned from performing at the Lewes International Guitar Festival (outside Brighton), while Night Light, released under a French record label, is a compilation of tracks from his albums Cool Friction, Matabele Ants and China. Newman is one-third of Tananas, which has won popular support nationally and internationally. Both are part of the Aquarian Quartet with fellow Aquarians, Greg Georgiades and Syd Kitchen.
“We’ll keep playing until we physically can’t do it anymore,” says Cox. This is good news for two reasons. Not only will there be greater opportunity to see these two brilliant musicians perform together, but maybe more of their work, which currently exists only in their heads, will be recorded.
Cox and Newman play with the Aquarian Quartet in Durban from 29 January to 1 February. Listings for the next three months can be found at www.tonycox.co.za.