Last year’s Eva Cassidy tribute CD on Patois Records, made with her singing partner Trelawny Rose, introduced national audiences to Amikaeyla’s glowing mezzo-soprano pipes and her embrace of unexpected repertoire choices. On Being in Love, those choices range from Lionel Hampton, Tom Jobim, and Bill Withers compositions to a traditional capoeira song and a Southern hambone, as well as several affecting originals — seemingly disparate styles unified 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.”
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 (who co-produced the CD) and Theresa Perez, and singing percussionist Linda Tillery.
Born Amy Marie Gaston in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1968, Amikaeyla moved with her family to Potomac, Maryland, at age 6. She’d already begun piano studies with her mother, Dr. Marilyn LuAnne Hughes Gaston, and continued with a private teacher in Maryland, performing youth recitals with the National Symphony through high school.
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 Surgeons General. “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 woman, 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, 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.”
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. This year, she traveled to Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.
“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.”
Amikaeyla brings her own music to Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz 8/24 and to Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland 10/12. She’ll also be performing at an Eva Cassidy tribute concert in Bethesda 8/16, with Trelawny Rose. European dates are being scheduled for the fall.