Interview: Yohannes Tona, Twin Cities’ baddest bass guitarist


Yohannes Tona has made his way the hard way, nailing down a heavy rep as one of the Twin Cities’ baddest bass guitarists. On a scene that includes monsters like Serge Akou (Joto, Wain McFarlane & Jahz), Justin Blair (The New Congress), and Tommy Peterson (New Primitives), that’s saying a lot.

In the past few years, Tona has leap-frogged from hustling hired gun to in-demand session player to headliner fronting the Yohannes Tona Band. Sand From the Desert, his CD debut, clues you in as to just what kind of chops it takes to make such a meteoric rise. It’s a funk-fusion tour de force, demonstrating range, texture and finesse—not to mention pure fire. There’s simply no getting enough. His next performance is at Rossi’s Blue Star Room on January 12, backing killer vocalist-songsmith Alicia Wiley.

You just released your CD Sand From the Desert and kicked it off with your band playing at the Dakota. How’s it all feel?
[It’s a] similar feeling [to] when you travel for a long time on a bumpy road and finally arrive at your destination. That’s kind of how I felt. It doesn’t mean your mission is over—but you accomplished a major task.

You gigged through November, as the house draw at T’s Place in South Minneapolis. How’d it go?
The purpose was to create a cultural exchange where Minnesotans come and enjoy Ethiopian food and hospitality while the Ethiopian audience—who usually stay in their [own] circle—come out and listen to music that is not the usual traditional stuff. I was happy to see that my band loved the lively sound of the room, the great food, and the respect for artists.

Do you expect to return for another lengthy stint any time soon?
Yeah. Tegegn “T,” besides being a great chef, is a great fan of my band. We will definitely go back in ‘08.

You’re busy. You’re on Alicia Wiley’s new album Changes and on Mayda’s EP Stereotype. Where else?
As far as albums, you can hear me on Desdamona’s The Source. We just finished Darnell Davis and the Remnants’ new CD, Voices of Praise. Most of what I play on, I have no idea when it will come out or what name it will be released under. As far as live performances, I play with Darnell Davis and the Remnants, Nachito Herrera, and Bruce Henry. I’ve got one [performance] coming up with Sounds of Blackness [and] Seven Steps To Havana.

How was it going into the studio with Wiley?
Fun. We played the tunes many times live, so it was easy.

And with Mayda?
With Mayda it is similar[ly fun], too. The difference is that Michael Bland, [Mayda’s] producer and drummer, has specific direction about the music. So I had to deliver that.

What’s your training?
I taught myself how to play guitar at the age of eight, and later bass. After I worked professionally, I decided to go to school for music and learned some theory and [music] reading and so on.

Do you take on students?
I don’t take individual students. However, once in a while I do workshops and [I] have been invited to schools to share my experience.

You have a slew of heavies on Sand From the Desert, including Stokley from Mint Condition, tight spoken wordsmith Sha Cage, and spellbinding vocalist Aimee K. Bryant. How was it working with Bryant and Cage?
Aimee has been with my band since the beginning. I am fortunate that she likes my music and continues to perform [as a member of] my band. I performed with Sha on one of the Poets of the City shows and thought she would be great to perform my poem “Poem of the Sand.’ I was lucky again that she took the poem and made it her own.

What’s next?
Looking for more opportunities to perform and working on some new material for my band, Darnell D. and the Remnants, and the Ethiopian artist I am producing, Asayehegn “IU” Adeba.

IU is a very talented Ethiopian soul singer who has yet to be discovered as a soloist. He used to sing R&B in a popular band back home, but after he moved to Dallas about five years ago, he wanted to fulfill his dream as an Ethiopian artist.

Keep on bustin’ it out.
I’ll try.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.