The house that musician Knox and his partner Ellana Bickerdale call home high up on a hilltop on the outskirts of Lami has a lived in quality. With a 12 year old and three more boys under the age of six, there’s no shortage of evidence that there are kids around. The house itself is a work in progress. The couple bought the two-storey plantation style house from an older German man some years ago and have been renovating it slowly ever since, updating the bathroom and kitchen, removing a wall here, adding a bedroom there so that the space works for their growing family. The spacious living room on the second floor extends out onto a covered deck. It offers treetop views of a calm, secluded bay in Lami with nary a powerline in sight. There’s an inviting table for six on the deck where friends are said to gather for drinks. And despite the surface chaos that comes from having with three very young children, a sense of calm and peace prevails at Fort Knox. The nearest neighbours are a fair distance away and you don’t hear a single car. Knox and Ellana chose the place because they wanted to raise the kids away from the chaos of Suva in a quieter place that in some ways is reminiscent of their own childhoods. He comes from Naimasimasi, a village of some 200 people in Tailevu while she was raised in Cootamundra, a rural farming town four hours south of Sydney. Cows featured prominently in both their childhoods but there are currently none at their Lami home. The couple had been friends for years before they got together six years ago after running into each other at a mutual friend’s wedding. Their first date was lunch at the Pearl. They’d first met in Birdland many years prior when Knox was launching a CD. “I never in a million years thought we would end up together,” says Ellana of that first meeting.
In May, the couple jointly launched Knox Entertainment, a new event management and entertainment company. For some years now, Ellana, who by her own admission is more of a “behind the scenes type person” has worked quietly in the background supporting Knox in his musical and creative endeavours. He has spent the past five years playing the festival circuit in Australia and New Zealand. Knox Entertainment marks the first time the couple has stepped forward into the limelight together. In June last year, Ellana took over the running of the monthly ROC Market in Suva (held on the third Sunday of the month), which has since grown both in the number of vendors and the variety of things on offer now that it extends all the way down Carnavon St. She also runs a market at the ATS ground on the last Saturday of each month and a smaller My ROC 2 market on the first Sunday of the month at the new My FNPF Plaza on Greig St in Suva. A natural synergy has come together to form Knox Entertainment. The couple’s first event under the new banner is the Thurston Food and Music Festival on Saturday July 15. It will bring together local acts like Talei and Nem, Inside Out, Seru Serevi, The Relative, Tom Mawi and Nasio Domoni – alongside Knox of course at an all-day affair for the whole family in Suva’s Thurston Gardens. The duo hopes to up the ante for festival food by pushing locally grown produce and a variety of world foods and vendors. They also want to keep the kids happy by offering activities like jumping castles, face paintings and art. Next up for Knox Entertainment is a recording studio on the ground floor of their home in Lami, which will allow the duo to take on, record and manage other local artists and develop the next generation of musicians. For Knox, it will be a natural progression to step into the role of mentor.
After doing the rounds of several schools in Suva, Knox was packed off to Rotuma (where his mum is from) for his final year of high school. It was here that he chanced upon an older man called Petero Romanu with “fat fingers like a farmer” but whose guitar playing was “out of this world”. Romanu took the teenager under his wing. Knox had grown up in a musical family and so knew how to play the guitar but was perhaps a little too attached to theatrics, he admits. “It’s about rhythm, slow yourself down,” Romanu said to the younger Knox, a message he now passes on to younger musicians who seek him out. The singing and that unique “gravel and diamonds” vocals that Knox is known for came much later and almost didn’t happen. He was playing guitar for the band Kulture in 2005 when founder Arthur Philitoga pushed him to sing. At first he would only sing once the clubs were empty, but over time he slowly built up his confidence and eventually moved to writing his own music. The title track from his first EP Jah Love (released 2007) was hit Number 1 in the NZ Reggae charts, where it sat for weeks. In 2010, he released his only full album to date, Old Old Tree, off which Sa Rui Dede was nominated for Pacific Song of the Year. In April 2013, Knox released his debut Australian single, Candy, which made Number 2 on the Sounds like a Café music database that’s streamed to cafes and eateries in Australia and New Zealand. In 2015, he launched the EP Fading, which won him four awards including Most Outstanding Song at the 2015 Fiji Performing Rights Association Awards. More recently, he worked on the soundtrack for an upcoming season of Survivor shot in Fiji with friend and fellow musician Talei over four days, their parts recorded separately, then layered onto tribal anthem type tracks. When we spoke in mid May, he was on the verge of finalising his first full Fijian EP Lele Mai, which means “to row across” or translates more loosely as “come over”. The idea to launch Knox Entertainment came at a time when the family had been considering moving to Australia. Instead, they decided to stay put, in the quiet sanctuary the couple has built for their boys that is all about simple pleasures. “We love to take them to the beach or the waterfalls in Wainadoi or not do anything at all,” says Ellana.