New CD by Bay Area Jazz Vocalist Amikaeyla
Supporting Cast Includes
Trio Globo, Esperanza Spalding, Linda Tillery,
Sheila E., Quartet San Francisco, & John Santos
I first heard Amikaeyla on the Eva Cassidy tribute CD, To Eva, With Love; A Celebration of Eva Cassidy that Amikaeyla made with her singing partner, Trelawny Rose. Her disciplined, yet daring mezzo-soprano pipes were astounding as are her embrace of unexpected repertoire choices. Eva Cassidy was one of my favorite jazz singers…she was also one of favorite blues, folk, gospel and country singers as well, displaying a wide swath of the music world and doing it well. The music world lost Eva Cassidy too soon so when I saw the tribute album, I was most interested in listening to these unknown to me singers would cover her work.
Needless to say, I was pleased. So much so that when asked to review Amikaeyla newest solo effort, I said, “yes please.” On Being In Love Amikaeyla does not disappoint as she continues to embrace a wide cross section of jazz and R&B tunes as well as some unexpected genres. Those song choices range from Lionel Hampton, Tom Jobim, and Bill Withers compositions to a traditional capoeira song and a Southern hambone, as well as several originals -- seemingly disparate styles made possible by her poised, forward-looking artistry.
"I really do feel a deep connection to so many types of sounds," says Amikaeyla. "Currently in the music industry, where you have to kind of pocket yourself in one genre, it's really challenging for me because I want to be a part of all the things that make me happy sonically. Jazz is Roots music," she adds, "and when you feel the music of, say, jazz and hambone, you realize that they are really part of the same tradition."
Her ability to bring such a dexterous voice to a jazz tune like “Better Than Anything” with its arpeggios,and quick passages and perform it with musical purity, even taking liberties with David Wheat’s original lyrics to list some of the things she finds “better than anything except being in love.” They include fried catfish, barbecue, pink lemonade, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. And then cover a Bill Withers tune like Lovely Day or ““Parana É”/Taking It To The Streets” where the interpolation of the Doobie Brothers’ hit “Takin’ It to the Streets” into the traditional Brazilian Capoeira song “Parana É” has special meaning for Amikaeyla. “It’s about calling the slaves to cross over this river to be free,” she says of “Parana É.” “That to me is what ‘Takin’ It to the Streets’ is about, as well.
Recorded in both Washington, DC and Oakland, Being in Love finds Amikaeyla surrounded by an all-star cast of world-class musicians. Members of Trio Globo (pictured at left with Amikaeyla) -- pianist, harmonica virtuoso, and pennywhistle blower Howard Levy, cellist Eugene Friesen, and percussionist Glen Velez -- are present, individually and together, on all but one of the songs. Other contributors include my favorite bassist Esperanza Spalding (at left, in right-hand photo, with Amikaeyla in center), Quartet San Francisco, percussionists Sheila E., her brother Peter Michael Escovedo, John Santos, and Michael Spiro, guitarists Ray Obiedo (who co-produced the CD) and Theresa Perez (at far right), and singing percussionist Linda Tillery.
Amikaeyla applies that beautiful mezzo-soprano to four original compositions ; “Abre Mi Corazón” (“Open My Heart”), sung in Spanish and English, is her salute to Afro-Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca, whose musical director, David Pinto, plays bass on Amikaeyla’s recording of the song. “Say Yes” is a love ballad written in collaboration with her friend Anderson Allen, and the title track, a lilting voice-and-cello duet, features new lyrics by the singer set to the melody of the famous “Flower Duet” from the 1883 French opera Lakme by Leo Delibes.
On “Hambone,” a vocal collaboration with Linda Tillery, Amikaeyla revisits a folkloric game involving the rhythmic slapping of the chest and thighs that she played during childhood visits to her grandparents in Sheffield, Alabama. The lyrics are part traditional and part improvised.
Born Amy Marie Gaston in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1968, Amikaeyla moved with her family to Potomac, Maryland, at age 6. Her mother, Dr. Marilyn LuAnne Hughes Gaston, was her piano. Her father, Alonzo DuBois Gaston, played bass and conga drums with such artists as James Brown, Fats Domino, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk before becoming a professor at Howard University. There he served as the university's liaison to Africa, and often the whole family went along on trips to Africa as well as Israel, Greece, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico.
Dr. Gaston, a pioneer in screening children for sickle cell disease, served as Director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration from 1990 to 2001, working under three Surgeon Generals. "These are people who were always in my life and in my thinking, which is why music as medicine plays such a strong role in my life," Amikaeyla says.
That background no doubt explains Amikaeyla's devotion to the study or other cultures. In 2006, she traveled to New Delhi, India to sing for His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his request and founded the International Cultural Arts and Healing Sciences Institute shortly thereafter. She has since traveled throughout the world on its behalf. In 2010, she worked in the Middle East with Iraqi and Palestinian refugee children to help alleviate the pain and trauma caused by war. This year, she traveled to Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.
In 2003 in Michigan, Amikaeyla encountered five white men who screamed racial epithets at her, then ran over her with a truck, crushing her ribs into her lungs and causing third-degree burns over 70 percent of her lower body. She spent three months in intensive care, following by nearly a year in recovery. "I died and came back," she says.
Musician friends from many cultures gathered in her room at Bethesda Naval Hospital to play and pray for her recovery. "The blessing of all that is it allowed me to explore medicine in a way that was larger than what I'd been exposed to as a child, which was just Western medicine," she reflects. "I experienced the power of music as medicine and I experienced the power of intentional prayer. It changed my life."
I'm so blessed to travel as a cultural ambassador," says Amikaeyla. "I've seen people coping with the stress of living and keeping their families together through war, poverty, and so much more yet we always connected through music. Music and love are always present."
Amikaela is an astounding talent, deeply moving and endlessly entertaining. She is also a gift to the world in her heart-felt connection to a multicultural musical interpretation and her work as an cultural ambassador. In a day and age that rewards manufactured stars and values image over substance it is uplifting to hear not only beautiful music but from such a truly beautiful human being. Like: Follow:
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved