Tonina brings enticing indie R&B stylings to True/False Film Fest’s Saturday night lineup

The St. Louis-based artist performed Saturday night at Eastside Tavern.

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Not every artist can say that they’ve had one of their tracks on a former president’s playlist, but Tonina Saputo can.

In 2018, former President Barack Obama added her performance of “Historia De Un Amor” to his top songs of the year list. She considers it one of the most exciting events of her career.

Saputo, who performs simply as Tonina, performed at the Eastside Happy Hour Saturday Showcase at True/False Film Fest. Her music, a captivating mix of indie, soul and R&B with some Latin and jazz influences, created a laid-back but electric ambiance for festivalgoers that Saturday evening.

Tonina’s musical roots date back to early childhood. She started playing music at age 6, influenced by her father and uncles, who were musicians.

“I have a very musical family … they introduced me to instruments at a very young age,” she said.

When she entered school, she quickly became involved with the orchestra and band programs. At age 9, she began learning to play the bass, inspired by her father, who plays the same instrument.

Her involvement in music only grew from there. After completing classical music training all through elementary, middle and high school, Tonina studied bass performance, songwriting and Africana Studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She graduated in 2017.

During this time, Tonina became interested in genres other than classical music. Today, she considers herself an indie R&B artist but mixes in other genres as well.

She says her music “goes back to like, soul and R&B, and then blends Latin and folk,” but at the end of the day is indie R&B.

Tonina is largely inspired by literature, especially the characters she encounters in the books she reads. “Mercy,” a song on her most recent album “St. Lost'' is one example. Based on Toni Morrison’s novel “A Mercy,” the it speaks of the life experiences of Florens, a slave girl.

“I was a huge bookworm growing up,” Tonina said. “I love stories, I love fiction … so a lot of my stuff comes from the characters that I fall in love with within novels.”

Her process is also collaborative. David Gomez, a close collaborator and saxophone player for Tonina, appreciates the trust that she allows him in her creative process.

“Music-wise, off or onstage, music or not music-related … she puts a lot of trust in me. It’s amazing,” Gomez said. “I’ll show her some stuff that I have and she likes it and comes up with lyrics … and vice versa.”

The two collaborated the most on “Esperanza,” a track where Gomez’s saxophone carries almost equal importance to Tonina’s voice with his impressive riffs and solos. The track is on Tonina’s most recent album “St. Lost.” The title is a play on St. Louis, where Tonina is based.

The album speaks to Tonina’s relationship with the city where she was raised.

“I’ve lived in Europe, I’ve lived on the West Coast, I was originally born there,” Tonina said. “I lived in all these places but I feel drawn to St. Louis. And I really like the city, but I am always wanting and yearning to go somewhere that is unfamiliar … I still feel lost at times when I’m here, and disconnected from the greater community,” Tonina said.

Yet when Tonina and her band took the stage at Eastside Tavern on Saturday night, the audience immediately connected with her. Silenced by her smooth, intoxicating voice, they began to dance and sway with her as she performed Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues.”

“She was able to move the audience with her incredibly powerful performance,” said Grace Engel, a volunteer at the event.

Tonina’s vibrant stage presence also added to the power of her performance Saturday night, emanating a joy for music that set the mood for Saturday night’s festivities at True/False Film Fest. Her tracks’ classical roots blended expertly with her indie R&B, folk, Latin, and jazz influences to leave listeners mesmerized and cheering for more after every song.

Edited by Sophie Stephens | sstephens@themaneater.com

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