Born: December 27 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
The ten selections on Being in Love, singer-songwriter Amikaeyla’s latest CD, are both spiritually uplifting and soothing to the soul. They are in many ways an extension of her years of experience in a wide variety of musical genres from around the world and her use of music as a healing force as Executive Director of the Oakland, California–based International Cultural Arts and Healing Sciences Institute (ICAHSI).
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—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 bassist Esperanza Spalding, percussionists Sheila E., her brother Peter Michael Escovedo, John Santos, and Michael Spiro, guitarists Ray Obiedo and Theresa Perez, and singing percussionist Linda Tillery.
Amikaeyla applies her glowing mezzo-soprano pipes to four original compositions and deeply personal readings of six time-honored classics. “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 Lakmé by Léo 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.
“We’d sit on the front porch, drink lemonade, and make up lyrics for hambone,” Amikaeyla recalls. “We’d have hambone-offs.” Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” has been a longtime favorite of Amikaeyla’s. “That was truly one of the songs in my childhood that made me happy,” she says. Her rendition features a pizzicato solo by Esperanza Spalding, the most celebrated jazz bassist of her generation.
Amikaeyla delivers Antonio Carlos Jobim’s lovely “Dreamer” in English and Portuguese over a laid-back bossa nova beat. “I was driving down the road in Washington, DC and heard this song playing on the jazz station, and I was literally moved to tears,” she says of Jobim’s recording. Howard Levy, also known for his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, blows a wonderfully fluid harmonica solo on the song, as he does on several other selections. “Howard Levy is a super genius,” Amikaeyla says. “He does chord colors and modulations that I never, ever could imagine. He would actually sit down and play the piece on the piano and then pick up his harmonica and play it while he was playing the piano. It was absolutely amazing.”
On the oft-recorded jazz waltz “Better Than Anything,” Amikaeyla takes 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. Levy does the first solo on harmonica, Friesen the second, bowing his cello and scatting simultaneously.
“Midnight Sun” was originally an instrumental by Lionel Hampton. Amikaeyla learned it from Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal version. “I wanted to take it down in tempo and explore more the essence of love with these exquisite lyrics,” Amikaeyla says. The swirling string arrangement is by David K. Mathews, longtime keyboardist with the late Etta James.
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. We need change. My parents were activists. Throughout my childhood, I marched in every march in Washington, DC. It’s so important to get out in the streets and be active.”
“I Know You by Heart,” rendered vocally by Amikaeyla with just cello and pennywhistle support, is from the repertoire of Eva Cassidy. It’s something of an addendum to To Eva, With Love, Amikaeyla’s acclaimed 2010 CD with sister singer Trelawny Rose of tunes associated with the late vocalist. “Amikaeyla” loosely translates from several languages, including Japanese and Hebrew, as “nectar of God.” A self-described “child of the Sixties,” she was born Amy Marie Gaston in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was surrounded by music and began talking classical piano lessons from her mother at age 3. “I always knew when she was deep in thought or sad ’cause she’d play ‘Moonlight Sonata,’” she says of her mother, Dr. Marilyn LuAnne Hughes Gaston. “That kind of passed over to me; whenever I get sad, I have to play ‘Moonlight Sonata.’”
Her father, Alonzo DuBois Gaston, played bass and conga drums with such artists as James Brown, Fats Domino, Lorez Alexandria, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Miriam Makeba before becoming a professor at Howard University. He served as the university’s liaison to Africa and often the whole family went along on trips to Africa, Israel, Greece, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico. Ami thus was exposed early on to a variety of cultures and music. The family moved to Potomac, Maryland, when Ami was 6. She continued her piano studies with a private teacher and performed youth recitals with the National Symphony from junior high school through high school. She also learned to play viola, Western and Indian flutes, dulcimer, and percussion instruments from around the world such as djembe, bata, conga, tabla, taiko, and timbale.
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 Surgeon Generals Antonia Novello, Joycelyn Elders, and David Satcher.
“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. As a young adult, Amikaeyla performed around the DC area with West African, R&B, South Indian, Celtic, straight-ahead jazz, and Americana folk groups, winning eight Washington Area Music Association Awards in the process. In a 1999 Washington Post review of a CD by Bottomland, an R&B band in which she was featured, Mike Joyce wrote, “...best of all, singer Amikaeyla Gaston’s sinuous voice, sultry and spirited by turns.”
In 2003 in Michigan, she 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,” Amikaeyla says. “I had a near-death experience.” 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 and being an advocate for yourself in the hospital. It changed my life.”
Amikaeyla recorded her debut album, Mosaic, in Washington in 2004 following her recovery, and since 2007 has been dividing her time between Washington and Oakland. 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.
“I really do feel a deep connection to so many types of sounds,” she says. “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.”
Being in Love, Amikaeyla’s latest CD, can be considered a jazz album, although it also draws on her many life experiences and the diversity of her musical interests. It’s a remarkable musical statement by a true renaissance woman.
Proclaimed as one of the “purest contemporary voices” by NPR, powerhouse Amikaeyla embraces the best of many types of music. Her sultry sound, as described by MTV, is “like listening to velvet waterfalls”, and her soulful flavor captures the listener with dynamic passion and enchanting sincerity. While the dazzling vocalist from the Washington, DC area draws on a tasteful array of influences from Bel Canto, Funk and Bossa Nova to Blues, her sensibility is pure Jazz.
Invited by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to sing at the commemoration of the Golden Buddha Statue, Amikaeyla was inspired by the trip to India and subsequently founded the International Cultural Arts & Healing Sciences Institute. Since then she been travelling the world as a cultural ambassador with her Music As Medicine programming working with the UN and US State Department in the Middle East with Iraqi and Palestinian refugee children helping to alleviate the pain and trauma caused by war, as well as recent trips to Sierra Leone, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan for the education and empowerment of girls and women.
Winner of eight Washington Area Music Association Awards for Best Jazz, World, and Urban Contemporary Vocalist, and the 2011 Maryland State Arts Council Award for Best World Music Composition, Amikaeyla’s glowing mezzo-soprano pipes and her embrace of unexpected repertoire choices is conveyed with grace and soulful authority on her new CD, Being In Love. Recorded in Washington, DC and Oakland, CA, Being In Love finds Amikaeyla surrounded by an all-star cast of world-class musicians. Grammy winners Howard Levy, Eugene Friesen, Glen Velez, Esperanza Spalding, Shiela E, John Santos, Michael Spiro, Ray Obiedo and Linda Tillery are present just to name a few. Being In Love is available now in select venues and will be released worldwide in August 2012 by RootsJazz Records.
Awards:2012 American State Department Jazz Ambassador Finalist 2011 Maryland State Arts Council Award World Music Composition Washington Area Music Award Best Jazz Vocalist Washington Area Music Award Best Jazz Recording Washington Area Music Award Best Urban Contemporary Vocalist Washington Area Music Award Best World Music Recording 2006 & 2008 Washington D.C Best Female Music Composer Washington Area Music Award Best World Music Vocalist Washington Area Music Award Best Debut Recording
“..one of the purest contemporary voices...” National Public Radio
“Amikaeyla’s voice is like listening to velvet waterfalls...” MTV
“An amazing and magical performer!” Pete Seeger
“...best of all, Amikaeyla’s voice, sinuous and spirited by turns...” Mike Joyce, Washington Post
beautiful singing and flawless production...” -Mal Sharpe, KCSM
Willing to teach:
Intermediate to advanced students