Bassist Tonina Saputo Hits Nothing But High Notes in Her Music Career
The powerful energy Tonina Saputo exudes while performing consumes an entire space. More than a sound that reverberates throughout a room, Sapito’s music moves through her and everyone listening. She commands the attention of her assembly as she stands on stage plucking her upright bass with visible pain and emotion.
Saputo ties her hair up into a brightly colored head wrap. Elaborate earrings hang from both ears and a septum piercing decorates her face. She sings in Spanish and plays the bass with the feeling of a flamenco artist in the south of Spain.
Saputo was born in San Diego to black and Sicilian parents but raised in St. Louis as the youngest of a lively family of 10. Music played constantly throughout the house, from classical artists like Vivaldi, Chopin and Mozart to classic rock like Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. Her mom simply loved music, and her dad gave her jazz influences and a love of Motown. The couple met through a twist of fate and tragedy on the site of the plane crash that killed all of Reba McEntire’s band members in 1991, including Saputo’s uncle Tony, her namesake. Her dad was in charge of search and recovery, and her mom visited the mountain in mourning. “I stick to music because of him,” Saputo explained.
Saputo started playing the double bass when she was 9 years old and quickly became a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, training for 11 years under a number of talented bassists. When faced with the decision between pursuing classical or jazz and contemporary music, she chose the latter and moved on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Saputo wasn’t a fan of the city and what she perceived as a “pay-to-play” mentality in the music industry there; she often performed gigs as an unpaid and underappreciated artist.
All of that would change when she studied abroad in Valencia, a vibrant city on the southeastern coast of Spain.
There she met musician Javier Limón, a Grammy award-winning flamenco and jazz singer/songwriter. They collaborated on an album, “Black Angel,” which came out last year to great fanfare. Saputo was named one of NPR’s Slingshot artists of the year, and her single “Historia de un Amor” was listed among the 100 Best Songs of 2018 by NPR—and got a nod from Barack Obama on his list of top songs from 2018. Though these recognitions are highly sought after and immensely flattering, Saputo remains as humble as ever.
Her next album, which comes out in April, reflects her personal style completely. It was recorded in St. Louis with St. Louis musicians and is a product of the community she so loves and appreciates.
“Black Angel” is sung mostly in Spanish, a language that Saputo taught herself with ease thanks to having grown up in a bilingual home speaking English and Sicilian. However, she’s found that “it’s daunting to sing for a group of people who don’t know what I’m saying,” she says. “It’s purely the music, and they can’t understand how precious the lyrics are to me.”
Saputo had listened to Selena, the “Queen of Tejano music” and bolero, a genre of Latin American dance music, before working on “Black Angel,” but never to flamenco. In fact, at heart, Saputo considers herself a folk artist with an affinity for a heavy bass line, not a jazz or flamenco artist.
Saputo spends her days working as a the music department coordinator at KDHX radio but performs often at various venues in town. She plays Feb. 22 at the Dark Room in Grand Center at 9:30 p.m. and Feb. 28 through March 3 at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. Visit www.iamtonina.com and follow her on Instagram @iamtonina to keep an eye on her schedule, because to see her perform live is a true gift.
Featured image courtesy of Jessica Page.