At first you don’t know what’s happening. The musical elements don’t immediately mix, but then it hits you: The sleepy twang of slide guitar lulls you as the slow, seductive come-hither finger-curl of Ayo’s wispy, Sade-meets-Billie Holiday voice finishes the job off. She’s pleading to a leaving lover, an unworthy one at that, in “Down on my Knees,” but he’s the only one she hasn’t won over in the four- minute intro to her reggae, folk and soul-infused debut album.
With Joyful, the Afro-German songwriter – already platinum-certified in Europe – candidly muses on the traditional ballad topics of family, motherhood and hitting rock bottom, but mostly she talks about love and all of the plentiful and needy forms it takes. Ayo digs in deep, recounting all of the inflicted scars in a soft, sweet tone that belies the underpinning of an emotionally roughed-up soul. The lyrics feel as if they were worked through as they occurred, and they pulse with beating life. The record is dedicated to her Nigerian DJ father, and the reggae and Afrobeat she was weaned on inspire a kind of cool, mellow Caribbean flow here. The bohemian folk elements are picked up from a Romanian gypsy mother, and play as yet another strength on this piece of art dotted with hopeful tenderness. “Life is not a fairy tale,” she warns on the back end. “Life is about more, ’cause life is real.”
Ayo brings modern, unexpected flair to the genre. Up-picked guitars and drum basics get thrown into a tumbler with harmonicas, electric piano, accordion and even mandolin to produce a layered, natural sound seamlessly threaded together by producer Jay Newland, whose Grammy-winning résumé comes courtesy of Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. As a debut, it doesn’t exactly scream out “Here I am” from the top of a mountain, but stands as more of a gentle statement: “I’ve been waiting here for a while now. What took you so long?”