Yohannes Tona isn’t a household name among the general public, but mention him to any top-flight musician in the Twin Cities and you will hear exclamations about what an incredibly talented bass player he is and, for that matter, how modest and agreeable a fellow he is, especially for someone with a world of ability. On a music scene where swollen egos abound and routinely surpass even praiseworthy skill, Tona is a refreshing exception.
Tona’s accomplishments are, indeed, considerable. He has played with the Grammy-nominated Excelsior Choir, Dr. Mambo’s Combo, Darnell Davis and the Remnant Gospel Group, vocalists T. Mychael Rambo, Bruce Henry, and Debbie Duncan—and that’s just the short list. Outside his constant session work, he’s bassist for renowned pianist Nachito Herrera, Doug Little’s Seven Steps to Havana, and leads the Yohannes Tona Band, whose album Sand From the Desert was released in 2007 and still draws critical acclaim in jazz publications. On the recording with him are Peter Vircks (sax), Brian Ziemniak (keys), and Brian Kendrick (drums), Herrera (piano) and guest stars Stokley from Mint Condition, F. Darnell Davis of Darnell Davis and the Remnant, vocalist Aimee K. Bryant, and spoken-wordsmith Sha Cage.
Tona reflects, “I feel blessed [to] have a good relationship with these great artists who collaborated [with me] for nothing but love. If all artists were like that, we would hear many more success stories.” Sand From the Desert is marvelous funk-fusion executed to an exciting degree of complete mastery. If you’re not even a fan of jazz or funk, you’ll still be moved by the beauty of the music.
The Yohannes Tona Band hasn’t been all that busy lately, but the man himself remains in motion, including the occasional jaunt abroad—usually to tour Europe with one ensemble or another. Most recently he was in France. Yohannes Tona took a little time at a coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis to talk about what he’s been doing.
You’re producing vocalist and songwriter J Pierre in the studio.
We haven’t started yet, but that’s the plan. We’re getting ready to get into it. We’re just waiting for things to fall in place. Finance and just finishing up the pre-production. JP’s a cool guy. I met him at the Blue Nile [where] I do this weekly [open mic] with Kevin Washington and Desdamona. He used to come there and sit in. I also knew his sister Cassie from before. A very good friend of mine who sings as well. One day he gave me a [demo]. It was cool, very unique. It would have its own place in the industry.
What was your recent trip to France about?
We were doing the Cognac Passion Blues Festival. [I was playing with] Jeffrey Johnson’s trio. It’s in Southern France where they make the cognac. It was a very nice event. It’s a small city, but thousands of people drive or fly in for the week. They have many acts from the states as well as from France. It’s a prestigious thing, even for the local people. It’s cool to see how people appreciate artists over there. I also saw great acts, like [drummer] Tony Allen, who was originator of the Afro Beat, the drummer with Fela Kuti, the famous Nigerian artist. There were some good acts—as well as some wack. But it was a great time.
Do you still have the Yohannes Tona Band?
Yes. I just chose not to do too many gigs for the sake of doing it, because it requires a lot of work outside the music. I really don’t have the passion or the time to do promotion, put flyers and all that. Actually, more than that, it’s a little bit of discouragement to me the way some of the club owners and booking people respond. If they don’t really believe my band brings something to the table, I don’t really like to bother. It’s like calling to say, “Hey can I come over?” [and] the person doesn’t you contact you back. Or call you in the first place. Most of the [jobs] we do, it usually just comes to us. A school, workshop, concert, festival. We still do some of those things. I’m focusing on the next project, which I believe would give us more opportunities.
What is the next project?
I have two different things. One is a little bit of more involved composition and a little heavy, intense playing that would feature more musicianship and probably be more of interest to maybe a certain group of music-appreciating people. Modern jazz, still with a World twist. The other is more groove-oriented, more accessible to a wider audience, with a focus on the Afro groove. A good amount of playing, but simpler to grasp for the average listener. I’m trying to figure out whether [to] do one at a time or a double CD. Or the best of both on one CD. But I’ve got quite a few ideas I’ve laid down.