A member of the Yaqui people of southern Arizona, Ayala earned a master's degree in music performance from the University of Arizona in 1997, inventing a new style of music along the way.
Gabriel Ayala loves a challenge. As a 16-year-old learning to play the guitar, he was captivated when he discovered a classical guitar recording. He took it to his guitar teacher, who told him classical was "too hard." Ayala's path was set.
"I was attracted by the intimate sound of the classical guitar," he said. "It was very different from the rock 'n' roll and blues we were all playing in the '80s."
A member of the Yaqui people of southern Arizona, Ayala went on to earn a master's degree in music performance from the University of Arizona in 1997, inventing a new style of music along the way.
"I call it jazzmenco," he said from his home in Tucson, Ariz. "It's a combination of jazz and Spanish flamenco and also brings in elements of classical, tango, and samba guitar."
Ayala has played throughout North, Central and South America and in Europe, and even been featured at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C., breaking down stereotypes along the way.
"I've run into a few promoters who assumed, because I'm Native American, that I'll be playing a flute or a drum," he said. "I am a traditional singer, and I can play the flute and the drum, but the guitar is my real voice."
Ayala is challenging stereotypes of what people expect from Aboriginal artists and also what other Native Americans and fellow musicians expect of him.
"It's important to break stereotypes of who we are as a people and break stereotypes within our own people too," he said. "I don't want to follow the pack. I want to be an innovator."
Following his critically acclaimed album Remembrance
, Ayala released his 10th CD, Shades of Blue
, this past January.
"It's a very personal CD for me" he said. "It's my life summed up through music. It's all original compositions, including songs that were written to depict the four seasons of the desert."
The CD is entirely Ayala's design, created after he broke away from Canyon Records and started his own company, Deezmas. He won't reveal the meaning or story behind the name of his label and enjoys the intrigue it generates.
Ayala has been recognized by the Indian Summer Music Awards, Native American Music Awards, Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, and the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. He led the Native American Music Awards, or NAMMYs, with the most nominations and for his 2008 album Tango!
, where he received the award for best instrumental CD.
Although he rejects the label of "role model," Ayala has chosen a traditional lifestyle free of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. He also teaches guitar to Aboriginal youth and adjudicates at regional competitions and events. The purity of his lifestyle is reflected in his music, as classical melodies are overlaid with the precise staccato of Spanish flamenco and smooth chords of jazz. In the title track Shades of Blue
, a saxophone accompanies the sensuality of Ayala's guitar, as the song flows through dancing rhythms.
Ayala has now challenged himself to "become a better composer" and make jazzmenco a recognized musical genre. Given his past success at overcoming challenges, few would bet against him.Gabriel Ayala performs Sunday, May 20 at the Windsor as part of the 8 Days in May, Eh! music festival. For tickets and showtimes check their Facebook page for the latest information.