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St. Louis musician Tonina bridges the gaps between languages and musical styles

Tonina Saputo is a St. Louis-based vocalist, songwriter and bassist.
Tyler Small

Tonina Saputo speaks several languages — both musically and otherwise. She’s not very far past the beginning of her career, but the diversity of her musical interests can already be heard in projects ranging from alternative R&B to Latin jazz.

The St. Louis-based vocalist, songwriter and bassist, who performs under her first name, has a global vision. “I really want to bridge the gap between American music — I put that in air quotes, because what is American music? — and world music. And what is world music?” she said. 

Her vision is reflected on her new album, “Black Angel,” which includes songs sung in Spanish, Sicilian and English.

Listen to Tonina talk about her influences here:

Saputo, 23, grew up in St. Louis and returned to town after graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston last year. As part of her role as a Kranzberg Arts Foundation musical artist-in-residence, she plays a Tuesday night residency at the Dark Room in Grand Center with her jazz quartet, leading the group as its bassist and vocalist.

Her album was produced by the Spanish producer/songwriter Javier Limón. Before that, Tonina cut a hip-hop record with producer Dylan Brady, who got his start in St. Louis before moving to Los Angeles. She plays alternative R&B in a band called Her Say, which she co-founded in Boston with fellow Berklee student Heather Rivas. Some of her new tunes, which she’s been playing on guitar — part of an album of original compositions she plans to release next year — show a singer-songwriter/folk influence.

At the Dark Room recently, Tonina opened her late set with solo bass renditions of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Later, her band dug into a soulful interpretation of “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching lament most famously performed by Billie Holiday.

Tonina says her pluralistic musical tastes are an outgrowth of a multicultural upbringing. Her father, Lyn Bolding, is black; her mother, Tina Saputo, is a Sicilian. The two met due to the sudden death of Tonina’s uncle and namesake, Tony Saputo, a jazz drummer who also played in the band of country music star Reba McEntire.

Tony Saputo died in a 1991 plane crash along with six other bandmates and their tour manager. Bolding was investigating the crash for the San Diego sheriff's office. Tina Saputo, a St. Louis-based nurse, traveled to the site of her brother’s death and met Bolding while there. As a child, Tonina absorbed a mix of cultures, from the food she ate to the music she listened to.

“Culturally, I felt Sicilian. However, I present black, and I am a black individual … so it’s very complicated, but their cultures really influenced me. I was eating pasta but listening to my dad’s jazz records and I would eat some cornbread and listen to Pavarotti with my grandparents. It’s very interesting and complicated.”

The music her parents had in common, she said, was the Motown sound. The family also listened to plenty of Selena, the late Mexican-American superstar, who was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1995. Tonina learned the bass in Kirkwood High School’s music program. She started out wanting to be a classical musician and played for five years with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Youth Orchestra. Studying songwriting and performance at Berklee, which is known in part for its strong jazz curriculum, she “expanded as an artist and really came into my own,” she said.

It was in a Berklee program based in Valencia, Spain, that she met and impressed Limón, a Grammy Award-winning artist she described as “a Swiss army knife of a musician.” Limón wrote most of the songs on “Black Angels.” Tonina carefully selected three songs by other artists to cover, based on musical styles that inspire her as well as the resume of each artist.

She explained some of the thought process that went behind each choice:

“The Beatles represent the white rock. And then Nina Simone, being a classical pianist but writing her own songs and singing and being an activist. And then Nat King Cole, being a singer and then going to Cuba in the '40s and singing Cuban songs — and he’s a black male bringing that to America, which was so admirable.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.