When you go on YouTube and search for Tonye Aganaba, the first video that pops up is for a song called "We Ain't Friends". It's a live performance recorded in late 2018 at East Van's Blue Light Studio, and it features about 15 performers crammed together on a stage. The group sounds soulful and funky as hell, thanks in large part to the vocals of band leader Aganaba. If you're thinking Chaka Khan in terms of the style, you're not far off.
When the Straight calls the singer—who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them—at home in the Renfrew-Collingwood area, Aganaba calls Khan the biggest influence in their life.
"I feel a lot of affinity with her for a number of reasons," Aganaba says, "primarily because she's kind of been, over the years, denigrated for the very public drug use. And as a former illicit-substance user myself, I feel an affinity to those of us who are out there doin' this work and get caught up in the mess of it all. But she's always managed to hold herself with such grace and class in spite of all of that, and I respect her so much."
Born in England to parents of Nigerian and Zimbabwean descent before moving to Canada at 13, Aganaba developed a love of music at an early age. They've been singing for as long as they can remember.
"Music is in my veins," Aganaba states. "We come from a long line of music lovers and music appreciators and my dad really made sure that all of us were exposed to as much music as possible: took us to a lot of concerts, introduced us to incredible artists from around the world."
Aganaba's musical career was thrown for a loop when, in early 2015, they were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Yet they've managed to turn that discovery into a positive.
"Obviously, being diagnosed with an incurable disease is heartbreaking," Aganaba relates, "but what it has given me is an abundance of community and an opportunity to connect with what is truly important. Before MS, that was being on the road, hustling every night, making sure I was on-stage, etcetera, etcetera.
"[MS] put a halt to all of that, and all I had to do was just focus on, 'Okay, how do I live in this new paradigm, how do I live in this new body, and how do I make music in a way that allows me to feel nourished and full instead of depleted and wasted?' MS allowed me to renew my relationship with myself and the people that I love, and also to find a way to connect with music in a way that heals my spirit and heals my body."
To add to the challenge, two years after the MS diagnosis, Aganaba was in a car accident that fractured their spine in six places—although you couldn't tell that from the fluid stage moves on display at the aforementioned Blue Light sessions.
"I'm real good when I get on-stage," Aganaba explains, "and the pain blows away because endorphins are rushin' and serotonin is pumpin'. But it takes me a day or two to recover after every show."
Aganaba expects to blow that pain away during an online jazzfest performance on June 30. They'll be performing tunes from their latest album, Something Comfortable, with a stripped-down band composed of guitarist Thomas Hoeller, keyboardist Mary Ancheta, bassist JeanSe Le Doujet, vocalist Corrina Keeling, and drummer-percussionist Aaron Hamblin.
"We've been playing in this configuration since 2018," Aganaba notes, "and it's been a beautiful journey. We went from a 15-person band to a five-person band, but I'm excited for the way that the music is transforming and that we're finding ways to be loud and proud with a few less folks on-stage."
Throughout the pandemic Aganaba has been inspired by the work of local artists such as Kimmortal, OZtwelve, and Dawn Pemberton. But there's one album that they've had on repeat the entire time.
"I'm throwing myself under the bus a little bit here because it's not by a Vancouver artist," says Aganaba, "but I'm gonna go ahead and plug it anyway, because I need to. The album is called Joy Techniques, and it's by an American artist by the name of Nate Mercereau.
"The first single from the album is called 'This Simulation Is a Good One', and I just think it's such an apt reflection of the times that we're living in, like every single truth that we have been holding sacred is being shaken to its foundation right now, and—I don't know about you—but I'm ready to get out of this simulation."
Tonye Aganaba performs a livestreamed show on June 30 at 8 p.m. as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and you can find tickets here.