Born in Germany to a Nigerian father and a Romani gypsy mother, Ayo (Yoruba for “Joy,” her given name) is a gifted young singer-songwriter who understands the meaning of diversity—and, by extension, adversity—because she has lived it. Her sentimental education started when she was just a toddler during a visit to her father’s native country. Her grandmother insisted on following Nigerian custom by having Ayo stay behind, but her father refused, causing a rift in the family that haunted the little girl for years afterwards.
She never returned to Nigeria, but the incident drew Ayo closer to her father, whose record collection became a refuge in the wake of another tragedy: her mother’s drug addiction. Left to her father’s music, she quickly discovered Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Bob Marley, and classic American soul from the ‘50s and ‘60s, all of which inspired her to teach herself to play guitar and begin writing songs of her own. By the time she finished school, Ayo moved to London and eventually settled in Paris, where she found the musical support she’d been seeking.
Her debut album Joyful is just that, but with a twist. Although many of the songs here deliver an uplifting mix of soul, reggae, funk and folk music that celebrates Ayo’s African roots, there’s a moving thread of strength tempered with vulnerability that weaves its way through cuts like the bluesy, accordion-kissed “Without You” and the churchy piano ballad “Neva Been” (the first dedicated to her father, the latter to her son). In the best tradition of understated singers like Sade, Amel Larrieux and Norah Jones, Ayo rarely goes for too much with her voice, opting instead to serve the song with her supple, airy tenor. Her performance in Monte Carlo, aired on PBS in December, certainly proved that, and no doubt larger stateside audiences will soon be getting the message.