Tango, harp at heart of Bellingham musician

Multi-instrumentalist Toni Knight generously shares her musical talents in her regular gigs at Skylark's Hidden Café in Fairhaven and at the monthly tango dances sponsored by Bellingham's USA Dance Club at Squalicum Yacht Club.

Her classic tango band, Tocato Tango, features lively tunes on piano, bass, cello and guitar with Toni's accordion and some vocals in the mix.

She explains here why she does what she does so well. More on her at toniknightmusic.com.

Question: Where were you born, grow up and go to school?

Answer: Born and raised in Baltimore, I come from a family of musicians and teachers. I was a theater brat at Western Senior, an all-girls high school, and received my bachelor's at Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins, studying piano and voice. That's also where the harp magically entered my life. I have made it to the grand old age of 50-something.

Q: Why and when did you come to Whatcom County?

A: I was playing in Celtic bands on the East Coast when I met fellow musician Lars Mader from Lummi Island. Lars described Whatcom County as "surrounded by beauty and kissed by the sea." He was right.

After 13 years I moved off Lummi Island into Bellingham with my husband, Dave Walker. This area is the kindest, gentlest place I have ever lived.

Q: When did you realize music was something you wanted to pursue?

A: Life has been an array of musical adventures starting at age 3 on jazz organ. Jack Schaller was my guru and jazz organ teacher. I grew up playing and listening to big band music. Then I had to switch to piano because in my teenage mind it was cooler and fit into the music theater scene. That's also when I started teaching in my own studio.

Our Puerto Rican neighbors in Baltimore took me to their Latin club parties where I was introduced to tango at 12. The passion and drama of that music infected my pre-teen mind. It festered into full-blown compositions and Latin improvisations at home on the piano. Then the harp led me into the world of Celtic music.

But I continued playing original tango pieces on the harp.

Q: How did you become serious about tango?

A: I wanted to dance tango but thought I needed a partner to take lessons. Seven years ago I finally started dancing tango but discovered that I prefer playing it to dancing. My husband, Dave, gave me that cute little Menghini accordion, and that was the birth of Tocato Tango.

Q: What's your music like?

A: I arrange all our music to the tastes of the local dance community. They determine the repertoire, tempos and style of all our traditional Argentine tango music. But we have expanded to include a lot of swing, jazz and even show tunes for mainstream venues like Skylark's.

All are orchestrated so it sounds like you are listening to a soundtrack from a movie. So our musicians have to sight-read well and improvise.

Q: Who's in Tocato Tango?

A: We have James Knight on violin and Cori Holquinn on cello and vocals, both from the Whatcom Symphony. Also Tovah Rainsong on both bass and guitar. I cover piano, accordion and vocals. I also play swing and gypsy jazz as a duo, with my husband, Dave, on guitar.

Q: Where can people hear you perform?

A: Tocato Tango, which means, "driven crazy by tango," has played in Canada for milongas (tango dances) and in the Skagit County area at restaurants and festivals. We even played nonstop 45 minutes for a fashion show at Western's Performing Arts Center!

But, the best place to hear Tocato Tango is at Skylark's in Fairhaven every first Thursday of the month. If you want to dance, then join us at the Squalicum Yacht Club every second Saturday of the month. That is the USA Dance-sponsored "Tango By the Bay" milonga.

Q: How do you spend your time?

A: Writing band arrangements and our newsletter, managing gigs, arranging passports and transportation, directing rehearsals, advertising performances is a full-time job. Between teaching and organizing student's recitals and their CDs, I still solo on harp for special occasions. Musicians lead very complicated lives!

Q: What do you like about the musical community in our area?

A: Bellingham has an eclectic taste in music. That could be why we have so many amazing musicians. We all support each other and recognize each other's creativity. That open-minded approach to music encourages new players to join the fold. I love that you can walk into Skylark's one night to hear jazz, the next Celtic, then the next night Argentine tango and swing. There really is something for everybody.