Last night the news was flooding my social media feeds – and yours no doubt too – it still doesn’t seem real. Aaron Tokona has died.
The Aaron Tokona that lit a fuse with the band Weta. The Aaron Tokona that was the heart and soul of the duo Cairo Knife Fight. The Aaron Tokona that I saw play solo electric guitar as opening act for Gary Clark Jr – you would think that might be an unenviable spot, a fool’s errand – but he showed more heart and soul and created a deeper connection with the audience on that night than the international headliner. At least from where I was sitting. And that’s the only position I’ve ever tried to write from; Aaron Tokona was a blazing talent, a unique source of energy – his was a gentle soul that was devoted to making music and merriment, to coping and connecting and he had the veritable ‘it’. A thing you cannot buy or study for, a thing you can only ever hope to have if you do not have ‘it’. He was a performer – and he knew how to trill.
I can’t remember when I first met Aaron – I know I didn’t love every single thing he did with music. But I do remember so many magical moments that Tokona created. And that means both in the music he performed for audiences and in the private Facebook chats that popped up at random times, sometimes for an hour on the trot, other times just a quick dump and run.
Last night, hearing the news, caught in the sway of not wanting to believe it and unsure about how this could have happened – if it even was happening – my mind raced straight away to seeing that Town Hall triple bill of Fur Patrol, Weta and Shihad in the year 2000. That, then, was as good as it gets and though all three bands delivered on the night, I remember that Weta was the band I liked least of the three on record but the one that delivered the most impactful performance.
I thought too about how thoroughly wet Fly My Pretties almost always was and is but somehow Aaron could light the fuse when he was added to the bill.
Cairo Knife Fight’s early gigs were really something magical. I was a fan from when I first heard and saw them and as clever and important as everything Nick Gaffaney did with that band (singing, writing, playing drums and keyboard parts simultaneously) the sum of that band was in the head and heart of it being a duo. And Aaron’s wild and unpredictable on-stage persona was so much the tonic. It kept you watching and wondering.
His was a rock-star talent – he had grown up worshipping all the shredders – Satriani and Vai and back to Hendrix and though he was into a lot of music from a lot of places he was such a student of that sound and feel that only the guitar can give as lead instrument as conduit for the overall sound.
There were other bands beyond the acts named here, there were more solo spots and lots of cameos and one-offs and of course there was the weird and wonderful jam-band AhorizBuzz. He was like George Clinton at the helm. That band was his Parliament-Funkadelic. A supergroup of talent in and of itself but with the bandleader controlling the vibe and flow always.
I watched AHoriBuzz take the profoundly white and prosaically funk-less Another Brick In The Wall Part II and lift it up and away from Pink Floyd and make it something so ramshackle-special that I almost forgot its source material (and, look, I’m broadly a fan of Floyd).
Aaron Tokona knew how to take a spotlight and make the most of it, but he was so good as sharing any limelight with the band – at being part of a sound.
I wasn’t going to write about Aaron because the Facebook feeds were flooding with memories and many people out there were far more deeply connected to his music and to him personally. But I did know him. And I did love the connection he sought through music. I did see him at his very best on stage and maybe near his worst and in both cases there was an electricity, a special wiring, as if he himself was connected to his amplifier. It’s something you are always lucky to see – because it’s so rare.
And I always looked forward to a conversation, whether online or in real life, with Aaron Tokona.
A couple of people wrote to me asking to put some words down. And I can’t say what they wanted to say. And many have paid tribute already.
So often I write these eulogy-posts here, little tributes, attempts to remember the impact of an artist – and it’s because I liked the work and what they were about. But in almost every case it is writing from afar, about a talent I admired that comes from a person I didn’t know. Whereas I did know Aaron. At least a little bit. And if it was a tenuous connection in the scheme of things he certainly never made it feel like that.
Aaron would greet you in the street like a long-lost pal, a best friend reconnecting. He would write you a note to share music – his own or just something he had found and liked – as if it was deep and important correspondence. And it was. And is. And I always felt that.
Most people that know me or read my posts will know that I’m not one for selfies. It isn’t so much about self-preservation, more my deep concern for the lens of the camera or the screen on your device. But a few years ago at an Into Orbit concert Aaron turned up and hugged me with all the warmth he could offer. He bought me a beer and we celebrated knowing each other.
He was blown away by Into Orbit – he hadn’t seen or heard them and had stumbled in to one of their consistently great shows. I got to introduce him to the members of the band after, and he was so complimentary of their work. He knew what it was like to be in a duo, how a duo is a different sort of band. It’s a partnership. You are working together for each other, you are the only two on stage making the sound. I could see he respected that about Into Orbit instantly.
I also loved that the first thing he said to me about that band on that night was that he loved the drumming. Here he was as a guitar player drawn to the drummer and the drumming. He also loved the guitar playing and enjoyed meeting the guitarist. But he knew I loved drums and drumming – I believe he was focusing in on that in part. But also he was such a fan of music and overall sounds within a band that he put his guitarist-ego aside to enjoy a crucial component of that band’s sound; of any band’s sound. It’s so telling when a musician-friend only talks to you about the instrument they play, isn’t bothered with what else could be happening on a stage. My music-related conversations and connections with Aaron Tokona were always about all the elements of the music.
A conversation with Aaron – an experience hanging out with him, a chance to see him in full flight on stage or off – was always about empathy. It was almost palpable.
So on that night that we celebrated knowing one another and enjoying the music of Into Orbit he said, “come on bro, let’s get a photo” and my first reaction was to shake my head and self-consciously or self-effacingly say that the world didn’t need to see that. He laughed and said “fuck the world” and that he wanted a photo of us, we were having a good time and he wanted that photo.
He took it. And he shared it. And I’m so glad he did.
The same is so true of Aaron in his approach to music in his life. He took it. And he shared it And I’m so glad he did.
R.I.P. Aaron Tokona