Playing for their Health

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Red is a color that’s overloaded with meaning. In feng shui principles of design, it represents the energy of creativity, passion and celebration. In literature, it’s been associated with everything from lust and beauty to courage and sacrifice. For electric violinist Omar Lopez, red has been a theme throughout his 12-year professional career.

Lopez, a singer-songwriter and composer, was dealing with a number of personal setbacks and challenges between 1998 to 2000. He describes how he wasn’t really going with his gut and an ongoing struggle with loss. The title track from his first album, Forever Red – which came out in 2005 – includes the line: “I can feel all the passion, all the anger, joy and pain, the reflection of my strength. I’m Forever Red.”

“Red is a very spiritual thing for me,” says Lopez. And it’s something he surrounds himself with, from his red violins to his red car. He began playing the violin 22 years ago, after his family gave him a choice between that and acting lessons, which weren’t working out. He didn’t really start to enjoy it until he saw a concert in 1995 by one of his mentors, Yanni. “I didn’t start getting active with it until I was 11, and I sucked at first,” Lopez says, displaying a candor that was evident throughout our conversation at Austin Java.

In October 2006, Lopez performed at a benefit for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. The popular local nonprofit provides mental health counseling, dental care and basic medical care to musicians who don’t have health insurance and would otherwise not be able to get such services. HAAM’s Annual Benefit Day is its biggest fundraiser; for Lopez, who didn’t have health insurance at the time, performing at the event was important and heartfelt.

“What HAAM has done is to kind of give me a kick in the butt to take better care of myself,” Lopez says, citing the fact that he quit smoking and cut back on drinking several years ago; recently, he’s also taken up kickboxing as a way to get into shape. All fees for those benefiting from HAAM are on a sliding scale and co-pays are minimal, while the services are offered through the Seton Family of Hospitals, St. David’s Community Health Foundation and the SIMS Foundation (which offers low-cost counseling and was founded after the 1995 suicide of Austin musician Sims Ellison, who suffered from depression).

On Sept. 22, HAAM will host its 4th annual benefit day and organizers are expecting more than 250 businesses will participate this year. In 2008, the event raised $150,000 – money that went directly to aiding Central Texas musicians. Since its formation four years ago, HAAM has raised more than $1 million and served more than 1,500 musicians.

Lopez began performing with the Brew, a Latin jazz band, about eight years ago. His second album, experience, came out two years ago. Although the violinist has performed at a range of festivals, concerts, churches, high schools and colleges, he’s never played at ACL or South By Southwest. “My music doesn’t fit in there,” he says. Indeed, his sound is hard to pin down – pulling in elements of jazz, flamenco, world music and gospel. Apart from his live performances and his records, Lopez also works as a part-time assistant at the Dance institute.

The journey to where he is now – on the brink of releasing his third record, Mirrors and Memories, this fall and striking out on his own as a fully-independent artist, hasn’t been easy. “There was a time when I was making no money,” Lopez says, noting that the past three years have been full of change. “It’s been the difference of me being in a relationship to me working 100 percent on my career. It’s also been me coming back into my faith as a Christian – all of these struggles end up producing new music.”

After eight years of playing with the Brew, he’s ready to be on his own and take full creative control of his blossoming music career. “Leaving the Brew is basically me leaving my comfort zone,” Lopez says. “I’m taking a risk.”

Support for and involvement in LGBT functions has come naturally for Lopez. He performed at Austin’s Pride festival from 2004 through 2006; he plays at Unity Church of Austin, a gay-welcoming church; he’s done benefits for the David Powell Community Health Center, which focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention; and he’s performed at a benefit for the Wright house Wellness Center.

Themes of overcoming adversity, as well as the undying strength of the human spirit, come up frequently in his music. Everything we do is a choice, Lopez says, and we can choose to be strong and move forward or to move in the opposite direction. “It’s about hope and strength and faith: the kinds of things that you can’t go and find in a new pair of jeans or a gadget.”

Being onstage is ultimately cathartic. “It’s just getting lost while I’m performing and everything around me is disappearing – and just me being one with it.” although Lopez has played in a range of venues and has opened for musicians like Pat Benatar, there’s at least one place he’d still like to perform: the Long Center for the Performing arts. “Austin is a very beautiful city,” he says. “I’m a nature guy, and I like the mountains and the desert. I like how it’s growing and starting to be the city that it needed to be.”

While there have been struggles and bumps along the way, Lopez is optimistic as he looks toward his future as a fully-independent musician – perhaps living in New York City. “I really feel like this is the best music I’ve ever written, so it’s time for a change.”

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