Music 'Addict' Gabriel Ayala Plays for Pope and President
The man and his music are inseparable because the performer and the performance are one.
“I love sound,” says guitarist Gabriel Ayala (Pascua Yaqui), winner of a trophy case full of musical kudos , the latest of which came in the instrumental category (for his Shades of Blue CD) at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. “I believe I’m the only Native American to win in this Canadian awards competition,” he says before quietly mentioning other current credentials -- a presentation in Rome playing for Pope Benedict XVI at the canonization of Saint Kateri and an upcoming performance in Washington for President Obama’s inauguration.
“The gigs just keep getting bigger and better,” he says, noting that when people ask what is next for him, his answer is world domination. “Not for ego reasons, but to break stereotypes and be a positive influence for our children -- drug, alcohol, and tobacco free -- just addicted to music. I’m fortunate the guitar found me before any other addictions did. ”
Point of fact for the world-renowned guitarist -- music and family are his life. He’ll talk about anything involving music whenever and wherever, but details of his family life are off-limits. “That is my sanctuary and where I get away from the world,” he says. The importance of family is reflected, however, in the principles that guide his life: “Honor your elders. Respect your women. Love your children.”
Ayala feels a sense of pride when performing for Native American audiences -- for instance, last year’s Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, where he was introduced as the Native American Artist of the Year. “To see your own people staring back at you with a gleam in their eyes…it’s like ‘one of us did it’…and to have elders come up to me and say ‘nephew, I’m proud of you,’ that’s a big deal. ”
Despite his ascendence to the rarified atmosphere of acclaimed professional performers, humility is still a character trait. “When I’m at ceremonies, I cut wood just like anyone else and when it comes time to pray, I’m there, just like everyone else who prays for a better tomorrow.”
Raised by his grandmother on the Yaqui reservation outside of Tucson, Arizona, Ayala lived an existence that could not have been more humble. “I used to run around barefoot because there was only one pair of shoes," he recalls, "the ones you wore to school that got put away when class was over.”
Now he sometimes introduces himself to crowds by saying -- “I’m Gabriel Ayala and I’m a millionaire.” A comment like that will stun the audience into silence, allowing him to explain why he feels that way. “If your goal in life is to be a millionaire, look to your family. I knew early that I was rich beyond means.”
The family was large and the means meager in the early days, with 16 aunts and uncles on his mother’s side and 11 on his father’s side, along with 100 first cousins who became de facto brothers and sisters to a child without siblings. Food was a shared gift for any visitors. “We had goats and chickens for milk and eggs. Sometimes a pet would be missing and when I asked the animals whereabouts, grandmother would say ‘in your stew’.
“My grandmother taught me how to cook at a young age, to sew and clean. She instructed me on how to be a protector and think of women on the same level as men. Being with her and my older aunt was great because they instilled the values I carry with me now and helped me become a responsible individual. It took a woman to teach me how to be a man.”
Ayala describes himself as a good student who loved math, but hated reading other people's stories because he wanted to tell his own. It wasn’t until almost high school graduation that he focused on the future. “Starting at age nine, my grandmother had convinced me to become familiar with different instruments, so I thought ‘well, I’ve got this music thing going for me' … I was King of the High School because I’d play pop songs during lunch breaks. I was a rock star in my own age group and didn’t mind that at all.” In reality, any career pondering was minimal because he already knew his path forward: “As a 15 year old when I picked up my first acoustic Fender Gemini guitar and strummed it -- I knew that was it.”
Although he now holds a Master’s Degree in Music Performance, he was not a child prodigy, and needed to practice up to 15 hours a day, often falling asleep on the couch while playing his guitar. When college time approached, he received a scholarship to Texas A&M, but was told he wasn’t good enough to be a performance major. More long days of practice followed.
“The rejection was heartbreaking and it made me angry. I used to be the top guy in high school and now I was at the bottom again. At the end of the semester, opinions of his talent had been changed and he became a performance major. A year later, at age 20 and without a degree, he was hired as an adjunct faculty member, the youngest person to ever have an adjunct faculty job there. “I felt like I was the Native American Doogie Howser,” he says. For his last three years of college, he went to class -- and then taught class.
Now performing over 100 concerts a year throughout the United States and abroad, he can’t remember his first paid gig, but laughingly says: “I’m a hustler, and while in college I’d play background music at social events, earning very little but allowed to take all the left-over food. I’d take the meat sampler trays, bring them back to the dorm and tell everybody ‘food in my room, sign your name if you take any.’ Then when I had no money and was hungry, I’d go to a student who had taken food and ask them to take me to lunch in return. So my first paid gig was probably in the form of shrimp and salami.”
Things are a bit different in today’s bookings. “I felt like an ambassador on my recent trip to Rome, not just for my tribe, but for Native people everywhere. It was a humbling and overwhelming experience with a private tour of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and the Pope’s summer home. “
He's now looking forward to the chance to play at January 21st Presidential inauguration ceremonies, and says, “That one will go on the resume, in bold, and underlined.” In between Popes and Presidents, Ayala teaches and performs for young people, like a recent high school class of 200 that included a Special Needs group. “One young man in a wheelchair was a lover of guitar music, so I handed him my $10,000 hand-made guitar and put it in his trust. He started beating it as hard as he could and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Nobody else had ever touched that instrument -- just me, the luthier, and now this youngster. That’s the real reason I play music … not for fame, money, or status, but because music truly heals. The smile on this boy’s face was worth any dollar amount I’ve ever received in a concert.”
The bills still have to be paid, of course -- and that’s where Ayala combines humanitarianism and hustle. “I’m pretty driven,” he says. “I now have my own record label and have started my own consulting firm to help those just entering the music business. I’m still my own agent, I record and produce everything myself, I’m starting a video production company, and I am the first Native American to have my own app for iPhone and Droid. I want to be someone who is setting a standard.”
In addition to his classical music fame, Ayala wants to be known as a mainstream artist who has mastered many genres. He’s now playing jazz, tango, flamenco, and his own creation called "jazzmenco" -- playing all the parts himself. “It’s all me, which is kind of crazy because of all the work it requires, but I’m trying to make myself into a well-rounded musician -- and at the end of the day, when I listen to the playback, it’s worth it. I’m still a student of the guitar and always will be, but I want to know about everything that’s out there so I can hear and experience all the possible sounds there are.”