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A Conversation With Nammy Artist of the Year Gabriel Ayala

On October 7, 2011 Gabriel Ayala, (Pascua Yaqui) a classically trained guitarist and one of Indian country’s most successful recording artists, was honored as Artist of the Year at the 2011 Native American Music Awards at the Seneca Casino in Niagara Falls, NY. Passion, Fire & Grace, Ayala’s 8th release of mostly-original classical guitar compositions, was the work to the NAMA advisory board that helped Ayala earn the title. Ayala, who has been touring extensively in the United States, Canada and South America, is also nominated for Best Instrumental and Best Folk/Acoustic Recording at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards to be held November 4, 2011 Winnipeg, MB, Canada.

Indian Country Today Media Network: First of all, congratulations for winning artist of the year at the Native American music awards. How did it feel when you got the news?

Gabriel Ayala: I don't think it has really set in yet. I have been so incredibly busy, doing interviews and sending out press releases all over the country and all over the world. I have walked by the award a couple of times and I stopped and I have smiled and I say “seriously?” And then I turn the other way and say, "I need to practice."

When you received your award at the Nammys you said a brief thank you and then spent the rest of your time talking about difficult situations in Indian country.

As Native people we are always taught that we're not supposed to speak about ourselves. It tends to sound like we're bragging. When I heard my name called, I wanted to jump out of the seat and celebrate! But then I thought to myself, Your grandmother raised you better than this.

I did not have anything prepared speech-wise. Even in hopes that I would win I did not write anything down. That is why I chose to do that because as Native people no matter what goes on in my life even if I am playing concerts, I still want to know where I came from.

I still speak my language. I still am going to be at ceremonies. I'll be chopping wood for the elders. People say, "don't chop wood, you're going to hurt your hands," and I do have scars all over my arms because I am out there chopping wood at ceremonies. But I do not let my career mandate what I am going to do as a spiritual person.

I am very passionate. There are children out there hurting and there's nothing that you can physically do. I was the emcee at the powwow one time and I was so angry because a child was lost. The child was screaming I picked up the child and held her in my arms she started to quiet down and I told her I'm going to buy you a snow cone. I grabbed the microphone and I said, "we do not have a lost child, we have lost parents." Our children are never lost when there amongst their native people. I said something that was probably pretty wrong, but I won't apologize. I said, "parents, if you don't want to take care of your children then stop having them." It was pretty rude, yet it was pretty straightforward. This old grandmother came up to me and I thought, She's going to rip me up, but she gave me a giant hug, and said, "I appreciate that someone has said what I'm feeling."

How did you decide you wanted to be a classical guitarist?

In high school, I heard my instructor playing classical music in the background, and I said, I need some of that in my life. She said "I don't think you will ever be able to play something like that." I said, "Don't tell me this." So I began practicing like crazy. I kept going from there and into college until I was admitted to Texas A&M University. I was met with some adversity and they said, "We don't think you're good enough to be a performance major." They said, "you could teach guitar." I said, "oh yeah, well then I am going to practice 14 hours a day." By the end of that semester, my committee said they had made a mistake, and they told me they thought I should be a performance major. I looked at them very cocky and I said, "I told you that four or five months ago."

The following year, I was hired by Texas A&M University as an adjunct faculty member. I was 19—to this day, the youngest faculty member to be hired by Texas A&M. That's where it all started—with me not giving up.
That's why when I'm talking to children I tell them the most important word is perseverance—people kept telling me, "No, you can’t do it." They kept telling me "You can't do that," and I said "No, I am supposed to be doing this. There is not anything that's going to stand in my way of doing this." And here I am.

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People tell me, "no way" and I say, "I still am going to do it."

You told us you have an announcement to make—what's the news?

This is a big announcement; it is something I have been thinking about for months and months and months. I made the decision last week: Gabriel Ayala is going independent and dropping from Canyon Records. I am moving forward. I have been with Canyon records for three years now and I would like to thank them publicly for believing in me, for supporting me as an artist and for all they have done for me. I feel that I have outgrown them and I need to move forward.

I am excited about this new move and I am going to release a brand new CD on December 1st. The CD will be entitled Shades of Blue and will feature about 85% of my own compositions that are very close and dear to me. I am really searching into that other side of me; I will be sharing songs that are extremely personal. I will be independent on my own label.

On a whim, Saturday morning I went to New York, and I met with Sony and Columbia on Monday morning. I walked in and said, "You probably don't know me, but my name is Gabriel Ayala and you will soon know that you need me as much as I need you." Next day I knew, I was having a business meeting with the directors and engineers of Sony. I walked down the street and introduced myself to Columbia, and we have been in communications this whole week. When I was done with both of these giant companies, I thought to myself what else can I do in New York? I walked over to Carnegie Hall and introduced myself and I said "You will have me here next year, in your concert season." I left them my CD and I walked out.

Leaving Canyon is a giant move, but I was independent before I was with any label and, regardless of whether I sign with another label or not, I would probably still end up coming back to independent because nobody will promote me harder than I will. There is really no turning back now. I have been debating this for over six months I think it is time. I really thank Canyon for believing in me and taking a chance on me. When I first signed it took two years for me to get them to sign me. I am hoping it doesn't take two years for Sony to sign me.

You have a new song entitled "Europa"—will that be part of the Shades of Blue album you will be releasing in December?

No, but it is available for free for download at "Europa" is a song played by Carlos Santana it has always been one of my favorite tunes and I have always wanted to do an arrangement of it. The song has a very intimate classical type feel.

Where do you see yourself going in the future now?

Global domination! I'm just kidding, I am going to keep on doing exactly what I have been doing. Whether I have Canyon records, Sony records, or any record company behind me is not going to make me a better person. It is not going to make me a better musician. I am taking 100% control of my career again. I am able to give my music away for free now; I don't have to worry about asking my label if I can give something away. I am my label; if somebody wants my music, I say "Here it is. Please keep it and share it." Now I will have complete control of what I can do with my music. It's not that Canyon was restraining me; it is just a great feeling to know that I own 100% of it. If the compositions are mine, it is only fair I own 100% of them. That is what I want to do. I'm going to use this to propel myself out and to give music and share music and give away free downloads all across the world. As Native people we are told if you are given a gift you have to share it. That is what I am going to do.

I would like to thank everyone who has been giving me private messages of support I would like to thank my family thank the Creator. I'm going to keep playing music with or without anybody and I will keep pushing forward—so thank you all.

This interview is excerpted from a longer conversation that took place on Vincent Schilling's Native Trailblazers radio show. You can find it and other great interviews in the archive at