It’s Wednesday night at Luna, and Jai Lopez is slowly pulling his audience into complete rapture. The packed house is still, silent save for the music, and focused on his every word and drumbeat. That ability to not only entertain but enthrall an audience — what many musicians can only strive for — seems to come naturally to this San Antonio singer and percussionist.
Although Jai has written an impressive collection of original genre-bending songs, at the moment he is covering the classic Marley tune “No Woman No Cry.” With a delivery that drifts between an island-tinged freestyle and a smoky, rough-skinned croon, Jai manages to make an already-perfect song even more beautiful by elevating the lyrics to a modern-day prayer for the mothers losing their sons on both sides of the war.
Later in the evening Jai serves up some of his own stuff, spitting conscious truths and party anthems with equal vigor. Says one line from his hip-hop flavored “Sexy Girls Them”: “I say me love the way you move your little body / Bring it to me baby, come bring it to me, mami.” “Can Not Be,” also a dancehall track, offers another level: “I come to kick it from the conscious / Though to you I seem rambunctious / My sole intention is to keep awareness amongst us.”
When Jai is in full effect, he bounces to the beat he’s playing, wagging his head of wild curls and emitting a positive vibe that’s infectious for bandmates and listeners alike. He often takes the mic offstage and moves to the music in a way that fills the dance floor fast. (In earlier years, he trained and danced professionally.) “I try to bring fire to the stage,” he says of his music. “I wish to inspire and ignite the light in people to do whatever it is you’re meant to do, just let your spirit go.”
One would think that a boy named Elvis would be destined to play music from the start. But Elvis Jai Lopez, born in Brooklyn and raised on the island of St. Croix, did not find music until his early 20s.
In 1993 Jai was living in Austin and looking for answers. He’d moved there on a baseball scholarship and had professional prospects, but he decided to quit the game, growing weary of its focus on winning above self-improvement. Surviving as a bartender and questioning his next move, Jai took a bike ride in Zilker Park one day and came upon his destiny in the form of Fernando Colon.
Though he was playing in a circle of master percussionists, Fernando immediately stood out from the rest. “He shone brighter than everybody else,” says Jai. “It was the first time I saw that light that we emanate as human beings.”
After the music, Fernando approached Jai and introduced himself by saying he believed Jai to be his little brother, sent to him to learn to drum. “He said he’d been told this by Grandmother in a vision he had,” recalls Jai, who was initially disbelieving. “He told me I was not only gonna play but sing, too. Everything he prophesized came true.”
But before prophesy became reality, Jai would undergo a yearlong mentorship under Fernando’s wing and under his roof. In that time, Jai quit bartending, slept on a simple mat, read an assigned stack of spiritual writings, and hardly ever played the drums. “I had to go through a journey,” he says. “Fernando didn’t let me touch the drums until my hate was erased. If I wanted to play, I had to first forgive and release.”
During the seventh month of his stay, Jai sat in meditation — something Fernando had been encouraging his reluctant student to practice — and experienced a spiritual awakening that he says changed him profoundly as a person. Soon thereafter, Jai returned to Zilker Park with Fernando for his first and only lesson on the conga.
With just two rhythms under his belt, Jai took up the timbales and immediately began gigging and even touring with some heavy hitters on the reggae music scene. Fellow musicians soon noticed his vocal stylings and pushed him to pick up the mic, as well. “I faked it,” he says of his early days onstage, “I learned on the road.”
Just as Jai’s musical career was taking off, his friend and spiritual mentor Fernando died suddenly in a biking accident. But Jai says he still feels the presence of the man he describes as “mystical, a truth walker and brothah to all.”
When asked how he moved from a single drum lesson to the much-sought-after status he enjoys today, Jai smiles and says humbly, “I don’t know. I’m still faking it.”
These days, Jai plays the full range of percussion (“Anything you can beat on I play”) and a little guitar. For the past several years San Antonio has been exposed to his music in a variety of incarnations, most notably with the groups Coyote Dreams, Maya & Magali, and Jemayá. He has a full-length album to his credit, but because of a sour deal with a producer, the high-octane Afro Indio Latino is available only to those who know their way around the black market.
Although he tours internationally with Mono Blanco and regularly sits in with a number of local acts, Jai’s mainstay is Drum Café, a South African company that tours the nation offering team-building workshops in corporate and educational settings.
But the project Jai is most excited about is his own — Herb-n-Café. The name, he says, describes the style of music: “It’s urban roots-ragga music. Certain parts are laid back, like when you’re smokin’. Other parts are amped up like when you’re drinking café.”
Jai is anxious to tour with the band that he says has been playing in his head for years. “The band is who I am,” he explains. “Worldly yet urban and at the same time country — my country, the hills and rainforest where I come from.” •
Catch Jai onstage with Border Palace every Wednesday night at Luna Fine Music Club (6740 San Pedro Ave, lunalive.com); Friday nights with Geno at Rosario’s (910 S. Alamo, rosariossa.com); and occasionally with Hot Sauce at Main Plaza (111 Soledad, mainplaza.org).
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