“Pack Your Bags. You’re Going to Rome.”

May 18, 2013

UA alumnus Gabriel Ayala fell in love with the guitar at first strum. He likes all types of music – jazz, rock, flamenco, heavy metal. But once he heard a classical guitar album in high school, it changed the course of his life. “I was mesmerized. It called to me." 

A member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, he was raised primarily by his grandmother in Corpus Christi, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University.

“I started at the bottom of the barrel. Everybody was so far ahead of me,” he said. The faculty thought he didn’t have the talent to be a performance major. So he practiced “like 16 hours a day” that first semester and by December they changed their minds. In his junior year, they hired him as adjunct faculty.

Ayala said the guitar was and is his only addiction. “I couldn’t put it down... It’s like another appendage.”

In 1995 he came to the University of Arizona to study with music professor/classical guitarist Tom Patterson. When he first arrived, Ayala lived in his truck. He tells of going to a truck stop to shave and wash his hair, emerging in his tuxedo for a performance. Ayala completed his master’s degree in 1997 and has performed ever since – at gigs large and small.

“To my knowledge I am the only touring Native American classical guitarist,” he said.

International Career

Ayala plays roughly 100 concerts a year, has produced nine albums and regularly tells students how important it is to stay in school and persevere.

Performing for and motivating youngsters is central to his life mission. Ayala says perseverance is the most important word. “I never stopped because the music was too hard or I went to a competition and failed to make it to the next round. I never gave up. I believed in myself. I was destined to play music.”

In 2011 Ayala received the Tanner Award from the UA American Indian Alumni Club for significant career success and leadership that benefits American Indian communities.

He couldn’t attend the award presentation. He was in Canada working with Native American youth. “I had to videotape my acceptance speech. I was working with kids at the University of Manitoba on a fusion project – talking about music and the importance of education – how education has been very positive for me,” he said.

An Advocate for Youth

“I talk about important issues. I talk about substance abuse – tobacco, drugs, alcohol. It’s about giving our youth an opportunity to have a positive addiction. My only addiction is music. I want to be a positive influence.

“Our children are suffering through addiction, mental or physical abuse. I’ve seen this firsthand in my travels. I see children suffer all over the world. They all hurt the same – Venezuela, America, Europe, Canada. We need to start healing – especially for our children.

“My foundation comes from my family background. I was primarily raised by my grandmother and a couple of aunts. My mom was a permanent part of my life. My uncles were father figures. I had a very humble upbringing.”

Ayala frequently uses words like fortunate, supportive and thankful. “I have a very blessed career. I have what I want and need in my life. I think the creator gave me this gift and I want to use it.

“This is all I do. I never wanted to do anything else. I never had a real job.”

He tells this story: “I was a dishwasher for maybe a couple of hours. I was looking at my hands all pruned and I thought this is not good for a classical musician. I have to quit. I told the boss during rush hour ‘I have to quit because I’m going to be a famous guitar player one day.’ He cussed me out in several different languages. When I released my first CD I sent him a copy. I never heard from him.”

In addition to persevering, Ayala is wide open to opportunity:

  • Motown Connection. In Ontario a lady came up to him and said, “I love your music. I need to get 10 of your CDs. I’m an agent.” He’d heard this before. “By the time I got back to the motel I had an email – ‘The Temptations are playing. Come out and play with them.’ I played among living legends for a couple of weeks. I’ve hung out with the Four Tops, Rickie Havens, Carlos Santana, Bon Jovi – all people I admire.”
  • Playing for Pope Benedict XVI. In Chicago he met people from the diocese who were going to Rome for the canonization of the first Native American saint. Was he interested in performing there? Finally he got an email: “Pack your bags. We’re going to Rome.” He performed on Oct. 21, 2012. “There I was in St. Peter’s Square in Rome… and the pope’s summer home in Assisi.”  
  • The Presidential Inauguration. “I get back from Rome and the next thing, on Election Day, I get a phone call – do I want to play at the Native American Inaugural Ball? This is just too much.”
  • Shades of Blue.  A Native artist was moved to tears by Ayala’s music. He painted a portrait of him – in different shades of blue. “I put it up in the house and thought I’ve got to write a piece for that.” The intensely personal album that resulted is a fusion style he calls JazzMenco. This year it won International Instrumental CD of the Year at the Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Awards in Winnipeg. He’s previously won international artist of the year at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in Toronto.

Next will be another classical CD – possibly Chopin etudes and nocturnes. “Ultimately I am a classical musician. That’s my foundation, my roots. I always return to that.”

Check out the UA School of Music.
Visit the renowned UA Bolton Guitar Studies Program.
Learn more about opportunities for alumni engagement with the UA.
Listen to Ayala play "La Cumparsita" on YouTube.