By Elena K. Cruz
We sat down with seven music artists at the True/False Film Festival this weekend and gave them Mberry fruit tablets. Miracle Berries. A whole new drug that can change their world. (Just kidding. Kind of.)
These berries, which were compressed into pill-like forms and bought from Amazon, turn sour foods sweet. Lemons, grapefruits, oranges, Warheads – they all become oddly sugary.
After her Saturday night performance at Cafe Berlin, we brought singer and bassist Tonina into the venue’s kitchen, popped some M. Berries and talked about her musical career. Welcome to the odd world of KCOU music coverage.
With a bag of onions behind us and performers playing music one room over, Tonina talked about everything from her music education, to the problems of white hands on black hair, to an unexpected appreciation of baby dolphins.
KCOU: How do you define yourself as an artist?
Tonina: I define myself more as an artist than a musician a lot of the time because I do multiple things. I don’t paint, but I like to paint pictures with my music. It’s not the general idea of an artist, but I like to tell stories via my artistry. I can tell stories through my songs.
KCOU: You go by Tonina Saputo on some of your online content. When did you officially become Tonina?
Tonina: My official, real name is Toni Saputo. That’s it. But growing up, I was always called Tonina by my family. My family’s Italian – my mom’s side is Italian, my dad’s black – and I was always called Tonina, so I thought I would put that into my artistic career and make that my name. I just go by Tonina now. I like that first name, the first nickname.
KCOU: One of the meanings of Toniná is house of stone in Mayan, or more specifically where stone structures are raised to honor time. Is that a representation of you?
Tonina: You know, I actually didn’t know that. I’m a stone structure, I’m a box [laughs]. No, you know it’s interesting because I’ve seen on YouTube when I type in Tonina to try to find my videos or something, like three down is a person at Toniná, which I guess is in Mexico, which is this beautiful structure, lush green land, pyramid structure, so yeah, I had no idea. But I did hear from one of my professors – he’s from Uruguay – but he did say tonina means baby dolphin. Like, I would love to be a baby dolphin.
KCOU: You’re from St. Louis. How has that affected your sound?
Tonina: I love to collaborate with others. I love to go out and support other musicians, and I get inspired super easily. So, if I see a musician that I like, I try to introduce myself and learn about them, learn about their history, learn about their artistry. So, living in St. Louis, I have collaborated with many people. I started doing that in high school, and I’m heavily influenced by a lot of their sounds. And I love collaborating and sharing great differences and learning about their ideas and about their backgrounds.
KCOU: How has your education in classical bass influenced your music?
Tonina: I’m super grateful that I studied classically because I have that left hand technique. That’s something I’m super grateful for because that technique doesn’t go anywhere, especially the left hand. However, I … miss classical music, I miss the music, I miss playing because there’s no other feeling like it for me. Sometimes I have some regrets for not being the first black female first chair bassist, but who knows, maybe that will happen someday.
KCOU: What you’re doing now is pretty cool, too.
Tonina: Yeah, it’s fun. I like what I do, but there’s a whole other part of me that is in love with going every Saturday for four hours to the Youth Symphony. That was my haven you know; I was with a bunch of nerds, people like me. Ah, that was dope.
KCOU: Your Instagram bio says “don’t touch my hair.” What does that mean to you?
Tonina: Besides a shout out to Solange, people have been touching my hair my whole life without my permission. … One of the reasons I started wrapping my hair was to protect it from primarily white hands. This is an issue with black women, not even women of color but black women, because our hair is an art. It’s beautiful, no matter what texture it is, whenever it’s straight or wrapped up. It’s gorgeous, so naturally someone would want to touch it. But people don’t understand that represents ownership over someone, and that goes a long, long way in our history. Feeling like you can just do that to someone, to go up and touch their hair, it’s very disrespectful.
KCOU: What’s it like to sing in both English and Spanish today?
Tonina: It’s pretty cool. It’s a part of me because I speak Spanish and I grew up listening to these classic boleros, which are Cuban ballads in Spanish. I felt like I’ve always been singing in Spanish, so to not do it is kind of silly to me. It’s interesting because I’ll cut out some songs depending on the audience and stuff, but I usually don’t cut out my Spanish. I cut out my Spanish tonight because I didn’t have time, but if I’m in an all-white space, or if I’m in an all-black-American space, that won’t deter me from speaking Spanish.
KCOU: Aren’t you performing in Sicily soon?
Tonina: I’m going on tour in April. It’s an Italian tour and then Sicily, which is the island off of Italy, and I’m also going to Spain. I love Spain; I used to live there. I’m super excited, I’ve never been to Italy. I lived in Europe for a year but I wasn’t able to go anywhere in Italy, so I’m super excited, you know the motherland, literally.
Collaboration with Owen Brock
Videography by Ryan Groom
Video editing by Elena K. Cruz
This tune makes me happy. “Alright” by PJ MortonGUMBO
Posted by Tonina on Tuesday, January 23, 2018