By Lauren Donnelly
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” They’re the opening words of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, but they also sum up 2018 for Tonye Aganaba. The Vancouver-based singer, songwriter, musician, and force of nature has been through a lot in the last few years. From health challenges that led to a MS diagnosis, to a car accident that broke her spine, to a record deal, to parting ways with that label, to falling in love and getting married — the last few years have given her high-highs and low-lows. She’s come out with a new perspective, and a reignited passion to foster connection through music. For Tonye music is emotional. Music is connection and healing. On Dec. 19, at Blue Light Studios, Tonye and her 14-piece band celebrated the release of Villain EP (604 Records), the completion of her newest album, the independently produced, Something Comfortable, and the official launch of her podcast, AfroScience. And there’s more. February is Black History Month, and Tonye is bringing her new music and podcast to new spaces. BeatRoute caught up with Tonye by phone to hear more about her ideas for revolutionizing Vancouver’s music scene.
If you had to summarize 2018 how would you describe it?
2018 was the best and the worst. It was the year that I learned finally to let it go. But it was also the year that I had to let it all go. So in some ways I was like, f*ck yeah! Bring on the lessons, give ’em to me. But the flipside to that is that lessons are always painful. I actually rounded out 2018 writing a song called “Best/Worst,” and it’s just about learning how to not take it so personal.
Your EP was produced under a label, but your upcoming album is an independent release. How was the production experience this time around?
It took me a few years after being diagnosed to even start playing music again because my ability to write music and my ability to freestyle, my ability to write lyrics was completely gone. I left Vancouver because honestly I couldn’t fake it anymore. I couldn’t even remember lyrics because MS affects your short term memory…So the new record really was about me relearning how to write music and how to approach an instrument that didn’t make sense anymore because my hands wouldn’t work. I had to learn how to play guitar again…This new record that I’ve made with my friends and family is that — it’s reconnection to that creative energy that brought me to music in the first place, not the music industry that I was connected to that helped me destroy myself.
How did those health issues impact the way you approach performance?
Before I got sick I was obsessed with getting it right. And I think that’s what changed for me after I got sick was that I didn’t want to just put on a good show anymore. I want to connect to myself and to God through music, and therefore touch other people with a performance. It’s not about whether the notes are right. It’s not about whether my band gets the notes right. It’s about whether we’re in it together and we’re doing it honestly…I do music because I’m a broken ass person and music heals me inside. When I get on stage I’m like, trying to get there. You know, I’m trying to get to that zone. I’m trying to bring people with me.
In December you had an intimate show at Vancouver’s Blue Light studios. What was that experience like?
So that show was the single greatest musical experience and endeavor and process of my lifetime on earth so far. I didn’t think anyone was gonna come…I’d been gone for awhile before we put on that show. I hadn’t released anything for awhile. My time at 604 Records and Paquin had come to a pretty abrupt ending that I didn’t really talk about. And I just hadn’t been participating in my community life, really. So I didn’t think that anyone was going to come. But what I did know is that the music that we were gonna play that night was so beautiful and so incredible and that it was worthy of being recorded in its entirety and I wanted [my band] to be there and to be recorded and to capture this magic because I know it has this beautiful potential.
Speaking of bringing people together, what role does community play in your music?
I started playing music in Vancouver because I stumbled upon Randy Ponzio…I heard his voice like it was calling, and I crossed the street and I sat in front of him. And I watched the way he gathered people around him…it’s because of that. He’s the one that taught me how to be a part of community and how much the music has to be informed by community and has to be given back to it in order for it to grow, and morph into what it really needs to be. Community is everything. I got really wrapped up for a long time doing gigs where I’m playing for people that don’t know that I’m there. And I can do those gigs, but I understand how much it feeds me and makes me a better musician to play shows for people that want me to be there.
We hear a lot about how Vancouver’s a tough city to be a musician in. What is something that you would say Vancouver does well that like no other city does?
I would say Vancouver fucks over its musicians and artists really well. I love that though. I’m grateful. In the face of that fuckery, so much creativity comes out. They say that whenever a Republican becomes president, the art pops off. And I think the same is true for Vancouver. The more Vancouver invests in the wrong shit, the more the right shit has incubation time. That’s the perspective that allows me to deal with it right now. Vancouver over-develops really well, Vancouver pushes poor people to the background really well, Vancouver ignores its systemic racism really well, Vancouver renovicts people that can’t afford to find places to live really well…It doesn’t actually have to be this way. And we’re making a choice to live like this. And through conscious effort, we can change our own realities. I’m changing mine by existing outside of the confines of the record industry that wants me to be a part of it. I will do it myself and I will do it in a way that makes me feel very comfortable.
In this newest phase of your career, you’re talking about bringing your music into different spaces. Why the move from traditional concert venues to something else?
I went on tour with my band called BC World Music Collective and we played beautiful city theatres across Northern BC. These are gorgeous venues. But one thing I noticed along the way is like, not everybody can afford that. I want to make sure as much as possible — obviously I love playing those shows — but there has to be a way to connect with other people. So where else can I do this kind of music? I want to go into schools. I want to go to the hospitals, because that’s where I have to spend a lot of time. Prisons, I know a lot of people that are suffering because they don’t have access to music, art, or creative therapy in all kinds of places. The people that can afford to pay $25 to see a show, I’m grateful for them. But maybe they don’t need me. I need them, but really more than anything, I need to connect with people. So my future plans really involve playing to people that have a heart to heal from what I have heard and what I know.
So going off on that. Where would you like to see the music scene grow? How can we make it better?
I think that the granting system is awesome but it forgets about a large subset of people who are very creative but maybe not super good at paperwork, and also maybe not able to access the kind of services that would allow them to get help with that paperwork. I think that there’s an opportunity for community organizations and non-profits to connect more with artists to create meaningful work between marginalized communities. I think that that is the future — that’s what I want to do — that’s the work that interests me. I want to help people to understand that they don’t have to buckle to the colonizing ideas that surround them. They can be creative and they can take advantage of the money that is there instead of it going to the same few people that it’s been going to forever. I’m grateful for all these gifts and now I finally see the value.
February is Black History Month. How can Canadians celebrate Black History this year?
My challenge to myself is to undertake the practice of understanding myself through AfroScience. Everybody has their own science. Mine is Afro because I am an African person…but I am going to be doing the real research into where the fuck are we? Where are black people in Vancouver? Where did we go? We all know — well I mean I hope we all know — people have heard about Hogan’s Alley. People have heard conversations about where black people used to be, people have heard about Jimi Hendrix having roots here, and stuff like that, but where really are black people here? Where are the black-owned businesses? Where are the organizations that are focusing on supporting black music? For me specifically, I’m interested in where I can find significant amounts of black culture in the city. Where can I find that? I want to focus my energy not on where black people aren’t, but where black people are. And so, if you know black artists that you have seen in Vancouver that perform a lot, go support their shows this month. Don’t just do it because it’s February. Just in your life, look for black people – look for them. If you look around your circles and there’s only white people that’s a problem. I’m not saying that you’re racist. I’m just saying that’s a problem. Go support black art. I’m playing tons of shows in February.
Tonye is opening for Mayor Kennedy Stewart, performing at the 2019 Black History Month Community Celebration at City Hall on Feb. 1. She’ll be playing at Granville Island’s Performance Works for Coastal Jazz & Blues’ Winter Jazz series on Feb. 23.
Her latest album Something Comfortable is available online Feb. 22.