Uplifting communities to rise and win
By: Ky Meyer
HOUSTON, Texas - It was back in late February when musician Nick Gaitan returned home to the Bayou City, fresh off a run with blues singer Nikki Hill. He recalls the growing COVID-19 buzz and not knowing what to expect.
"I kinda felt the same as I do when I watch the weather during hurricane season in the Gulf region. You see it coming but hope something happens and the bad news changes course or reaches you with less intensity," says Gaitan.
That may have been the case for Hurricane Laura, but unfortunately, not the coronavirus. Conflicting reports flooded social media timelines and it wasn't long before life as a musician was deeply compromised.
"We were left to our instincts and drive to get creative and adapt," Gaitan recalls, "I knew it was time to improvise, using whatever technology was available to figure out how to keep a gig going."
Over the past 25 years, figuring out gigs has been the least of Gaitan's concerns. The seasoned bassist, songwriter, bandleader, and sideman has spent decades gracing stages with such notable hall-of-famers as Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver and Los Skarnales. He's been the frontman of his own band Nick Gaitan & The Umbrella Man and you may have seen him on The Late Show with David Letterman, among musik festivals and tours spanning the globe.
"The musik community came together in so many ways. Not only did we get going with digital shows to bring some sort of money in, some places were able to hire performers one last time before all the stages closed and we were forced to stay home," says Gaitan.
Life felt out of tune, but it didn't hold Gaitan back from figuring out how to make it work. He credits close connections within his musik family as his saving grace.
"Help was coming in, in many forms, like money to help eat and pay expenses. I was checking in on my people and the same was happening in return," says Gaitan, "Friends were calling to check in and remind me they were there if I needed them. That's what the Houston musik and art scene is all about."
Gaitan was determined to round up musician pals to collaborate and generate funds through streaming shows.
"Tips came in from online shows and fellow musicians shared advice on getting the best results without having fancy equipment. It was all so helpful during such a scary time and it was a very circular thing. It's an orbit I am grateful that I'm in," says Gaitan.
The goal for every working musician is to stay afloat doing what they love, but even Gaitan realizes when the heat is on to survive, you have to be flexible.
"Keep making music because without it, we aren't ourselves, but don't ignore those other things you are good at. Those talents can bring in some money too during hard times," advises Gaitan, "Many of the things I take on as side hustles I tend to do between tours. It's just how I am. In these hard times you just HAVE to do something, so look for whatever you can to get you by."
Equally important to Gaitan is finding balance outside of work to stand up against social issues impacting his community. He made time to attend protests in Downtown Houston against continued police brutality and racial injustice. He hit the streets and marched peacefully in a crowd to city hall.
"I'm glad I went, and felt blessed by the friends who I marched with and ran into," says Gaitan, "But it's crazy and it's not new. Things need to change. There are a lot of people that have been quite comfortable with murder, corruption, cover-ups, and blatant racism. Now is not the time to pump the brakes on the fight for justice. We have to do better. It's time, the time is now."
My conversations with Gaitan were a bold reminder of why it's important to keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on. What I love just as much is that he's quick to nudge focus on making self-care a top priority.
"Check in, invite collaboration, offer a hand, and just keep your ear to the street. But don't be afraid to turn off your TV, get off social media, and make sure you're okay first," says Gaitan.
Staying true to such advice the past several months has afforded Gaitan time and clarity to work in the background on a community platform he's deeply passionate about: Tejas Got Soul.
Several years ago, Gaitan co-created Tejas Got Soul with his friend Isaac Rodriguez. The two Houston natives share a love for history and musik which sparked their idea to create what Gaitan describes as "really cool Sunday hangs" for the East End community.
"Isaac has done some pretty extensive research on many Houston musicians, especially early Chicano Soul that eventually led to Tejano music," says Gaitan, "He's also quite the record collector so we pulled together vinyl and DJ gear to create evenings jam-packed with great musik, lots of dancing and buckets of beer."
After years of success spinning vinyl together, Gaitan and Rodriguez turned Tejas Got Soul into an even bigger community event. Last April they hosted Early Chicano Sounds of Houston outside Morales Radio Hall.
"Some amazing people came together to bring the idea to a bigger stage and audience. People like Mary Manning from UH Libraries, my rock star friend, folklorist, and all around badass, Pat Jasper, and Angel Quesada who is one talented cat who produces videos, paints murals, and loves to play music," says Gaitan, "The day-long block party was everything from live musik, a powerful panel discussion, and vendors who came together to honor pioneering musicians of Tejano Soul from Houston's East End."
Now, Gaitan and his crew are ready for Tejas Got Soul 2.
"We've started rolling out Tejas Got Soul 2 events, and planning performances in a virtual fashion because of the COVID-19 pandemic," says Gaitan.
Their latest spotlight is Houston Chicano legend, Marky Lee. Tejas Got Soul 2 kicked things off August 27 with a musik video release featuring Lee performing alongside Gaitan and Roberto Rodriguez III inside D&W lounge.
"It's a beautiful thing! I am so proud to be a part of all of this," says Gaitan, "It's our city, these are our passions, and we play to the pulse of our barrios. That's huge to me and this is all fueled by passion!"
Nick Gaitan is proof that using passion to fuel purpose is a mighty way to overcome fear. If you stay true to yourself and pour into the super powers you hold, anything is possible. Gaitan's relentless efforts to uplift Houston communities and navigate a path unknown makes him a musik healer of our generation.
Video by Narciso Palma + Ky Meyer
Musik by Mookie The Wizard