Saturday, August 10, 2013

Black Music Month feature: Yohannes Tona

Just thinking of Yohannes Tona's dizzying schedule is exhausting.

Tona, a native of Ethiopia, is known as the Twin Cities' most sought-after bassist – and with good reason. His outstanding ear for music, combined with his formal training and his love of multiple styles and genres have made Tona one of the busiest (and most likely the busiest) musicians in the area. For Tona, slowing down isn't even an option.

"My friends gave me the nickname 'Top Dollar' but I tell them my bank account isn't top dollar," said Tona, while laughing. "I say I'm 'Every Dollar.' I play everywhere – as long as it's good music."

Everywhere is not much of an exaggeration.

Consider the multiple bands Tona is a part of or with whom he's associated. There's Sounds of Blackness, Dr. Mambo's Combo (every Sunday and Monday at Bunker's), #MPLS (formerly BoomBox), gospel and R&B group, the Steeles, the Cuban jazz group, the Nachito Herrera Trio and he was the bassist for the now on hiatus, New Congress. Now add to that the many touring artists with whom Tona has backed. Tona has played with Eric Roberson, Anthony David, Noel Gourdin and countless, countless others. He also plays with Timotha Lanae (featured previously in Aesthetically Speaking) and produced or co-produced about half of her album, "RED," which is high on the charts in the United Kingdom and all the rage in Japan.

What separates Tona from many other musicians is his work ethic and attention to detail. For the graduate of the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston – where he attended on a full scholarship – no one gig is more important than the other.

"Some musicians will say, 'I'm only getting $150 this, so I'm not going to spend that much time rehearsing or studying the music,'" said Tona, who was just finishing a recording session with one of the Steels and was readying himself for a show later in the evening. "To me a gig that pays $1,000 is the same as one that pays $150. It's always my name associated with it. I always say, every gig either gets another gig or cancels a gig."

Tona began playing acoustic guitar, traveling Ethiopia with his mother, who was a popular religious singer. Always his passion, Tona said he never considered a fulltime career in music until a neighbor of his mentioned being able to study music in the United States.

"Before that, I didn't know you could go to school for this and have a career at it. That was really the beginning of my dream to be a professional musician," said Tona, who is married with two small sons.

So, how did the Twin Cities get so lucky to have a Berklee graduate playing around town nightly?

"I was contacted by an Ethiopian church, Ethiopian Evangelical Church (in St. Paul), to come and do a concert. After the concert they offered me the job of music director," recalled Tona. "I didn't mean to stay this long, but good things started happening, and so I'm here."

Good things are happening indeed.

Aside from working on virtually everyone else's show or project, Tona has his own project set for release. Next month, Tona's own group, the Yohannes Tona Band, will release his CD, "13" – a fusion of Afrobeat and contemporary jazz.

"The project is called '13' because for me, 13 just kept popping up," said Tona. "It's been 13 years since I came to the (United) States, and I came from a place where we had 13 months (in a calendar year) full of sunshine; and it took me about 13 weeks to finish the recording. And it's 2013, so there you go."

Not by small coincidence, the CD releases on July 13. Tona is having a release performance that day at the Black Dog Café, 308 E. Prince St., St. Paul. The following week, Tona's band will be the backing band for most of the acts performing during the Rondo Days Festival.

With all that's going on with Tona, one might ask, when does he sleep?

"That's a good question. I don't like to sleep too long. I usually get in around two (in the morning) and I don't go right to sleep. I'm up working on things and my boys get me up pretty early in the morning," said Tona. "They're my alarm clock."

And when his "alarm clock" rings, Tona's at it again, composing, practicing, studying – performing. For Tona, it's on to the next gig.