At age 13, Aina Cook couldn’t predict that auditioning for a singing competition would lead to a successful music career. “I didn’t really have any formal training of any kind; I just sang with all my heart,” Cook says about competing in Pazzapa, the most popular singing competition in her home country of Madagascar. “Next thing I knew, I had won, and I was on my way to record my first album.”
Years later, after multiple pop albums and success in Madagascar and Europe, Cook is breaking into the Midwest music scene and into new genres: blues and jazz.
Earlier this year, Cook’s band won King of the Roots, a contest at The Blue Note where the band competed against four other talented local groups. The prize? A coveted spot on this year’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival stage. For Cook, who went to Roots N Blues for the first time while studying at MU, the chance to perform has been on her mind. “The first time I went to Roots N Blues, I just thought, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool to be up on that stage?’” she says. “Next thing you know, here we are.” She’ll perform with her new group, The Aina Cook Band, at the festival this weekend.
Growing up, Cook’s childhood home in Madagascar brimmed with music; her father, a St. Louis native and guitarist, exposed her to American musicians such as Stevie Wonder, as well as French and Malagasy artists. Her mother, a native Malagasy, sings. It wasn’t until Pazzapa, though, that Cook decided to pursue music, too. After winning in 2003, she recorded two albums and toured Madagascar and France while balancing high school obligations.
In 2009, Cook moved to her dad’s home state of Missouri to attend MU and experiment with her music. She says the transition from Malagasy life to the U.S. was a culture shock, especially when it came to music.
“There’s so many different kinds of music, and all of the different kinds of people are so amazing,” Cook says. Moving pushed her to try new sounds and stray from the happy pop music she performed in Madagascar. “People here in the U.S. are very open-minded; they’re a lot more accepting,” she says. “Coming here, I realized I could be myself, and I could sing about things I really cared about.”
In 2016, Cook moved to St. Louis to focus on music. She quickly found a home in the city’s jazz and blues scene and started tackling heavier subjects with her lyrics. Comparing her teenage music with her style today, “There’s a drastic difference between the two sounds,” she says. “It’s two different people. Love is awesome, and I want to talk about love all day long, but there are other things in this world that need to be addressed.”
Cook describes herself as a feminist, and girl power is central to her music. The title track of her new EP, “Brand New Knife,” is about a woman’s reaction to her uncommitted partner. Even though she describes her lyrics as “kind of joking,” — the chorus reads, “I got a brand new knife / and I’m waiting here for you” — many of her songs explore the unbalanced power dynamic between men and women.
Concertgoers can expect lots of vocal intensity. “I’m a very powerful singer, very loud,” Cook says. “My concerts are very loaded in emotion.” The group will play mostly original songs, though Cook says the set will feature something new: “We’re adding a horn section just for Roots N Blues, so that’s going to be super fun.”
Her decision to change things up with new instruments is just another example of Cook’s versatility and constantly developing style. “I’m still growing, so my sound is still changing,” she says. “I don’t want to be put in a box.”