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A coffee with ... Luis Banuelos

Musical destiny – and tenacity – led guitarist to steady gigs in Austin

Denise Gamino

Luis Banuelos' carefree jump into a Dumpster in Southern California 15 years ago set him on a musical path to Austin. He saw only broken furniture and cardboard as he flew into the junk heap while playing teenage hide-and-seek with his brothers. But something else was there.

"Pungggg!"

Banuelos dug through the castoffs to find the source of the mystery sound: a battered guitar.

That Sigma guitar, a lower-end acoustic model by Martin, led Banuelos on a years-long, hard-luck journey to the walk-up window of Ruta Maya coffeehouse on South Congress Avenue, where we're meeting for hot chocolate on a winter afternoon.

Banuelos orders the cocoa "with love," his way of getting whipped cream with a chocolate syrup drizzle. Whether it's a burger, a pizza or a hot chocolate, Banuelos uses his "with love" code to signal the cooks and baristas to have fun and add a little extra dollop of beauty and creativity.

"Like mom's cooking!" he says, his big, black eyes shining with delight. He dives straight into his fluffy mug of chocolate, no straw or spoon for him. There's no gusto in utensils.

The effervescent Banuelos is a fixture these days at Ruta Maya, where he downs two or three hot chocolates a day. "All I have to do is show my face and it's ready for me."

Banuelos moved to Austin sight-unseen in 2009, another music junkie drawn to the city's culture of embracing self-starting artists. Some of the scores of newcomers never advance beyond busking. Some build a loyal following but need a day job. And some, like Banuelos, end up making a musical living.

He has regular downtown gigs: Annie's Café & Bar on Saturday and Thursday evenings, Qua Bottle Lounge on most Friday evenings, at Shiner's Saloon late Friday nights and at Lamberts on Tuesday nights.

His story, which spills out of him like a ballad, offers a glimpse into who is moving to Austin for music and why they come.

Banuelos is a self-taught flamenco guitarist whose music is influenced by hip-hop, Motown, R&B, rock and wisps of Middle Eastern flavors. He calls it "flamenco fusion."

With hands covered by black, fingerless gloves, Banuelos lifts "Isabel," his flame maple and spruce Cordoba guitar, from its black case on a table on Ruta Maya's front porch.

"Wow," a nearby patron says. "That's a pretty guitar."

He strums a Spanish melody and segues into bits of other musical flavors.

"I wasn't taught. It's just in my blood," he says. "I grew up in a Mexican family with Mexican music in a black neighborhood with white friends."

Banuelos is 29 years old and has been obsessed with music since he discovered what he calls "a photographic memory for music."

He received a Casio electronic keyboard for his sixth birthday. Almost immediately, he could play the songs he heard every week in a Catholic church in Ontario, Calif.

"I can listen to anything and play it," he says. "It was just so easy for me."

Banuelos carried his 30-inch keyboard everywhere, loading his pockets with spare C-cell batteries. He took it to school. He played it at lunch. He walked down the street with it.

"If I didn't have it with me, I was thinking about it all day long."

Songs like "Greensleeves" took his breath away because he heard so many emotions. "It had that eeriness, but it was kind of sweet at the same time," he says and then hums the tune.

He was 14 when he found the discarded guitar. By then, he'd been playing piano and school band drums for so long that he understood the new instrument right away.

At 16, he was playing electric guitar in a hip-hop band. Love and Rage played some famous Hollywood haunts: Whisky a Go Go, House of Blues, the Roxy, Hollywood Athletic Club.

"I was nervous on-stage," he remembers. "It was so different, but I liked it. People jumping up and down like crazy, and I'm some kid, and everybody loved our music. You get offstage and people are pounding you on your back: 'You rocked it!'

"That was the first taste, right there, of everything I knew I wanted in my future."

But the band broke up. Banuelos graduated from high school, got married and had to take jobs installing hardwood floors and painting. "I was just a closet guitar player after that," he says.

When he wasn't working, he was playing guitar, up to eight hours a day. His wife wasn't supportive, and his family told him to get a real job.

"Me, I'm an optimist," he says. "Don't tell me I can't do something. I know I can play. I have this fire burning inside of me that no one can put out. I didn't put it there. So I'm going to follow my dream, and I'm going to pursue it, and something will happen, because I didn't do this to myself."

A motorcycle blasts through the Ruta Maya parking lot, but Banuelos just keeps talking.

"I didn't choose this for me; these desires that I have inside of me were put there by something, by someone. I think God did it, because it's a gift, and a gift has to be given to you by someone."

He's got a gift for gab, polished by months of selling cars, another career he tried after moving to the Reno, Nev., area with his wife to take advantage of the lower cost of living. He worked in a giant Amazon.com distribution warehouse outside Reno until getting laid off, then started at a car lot.

The soul of the artist was still kicking and picking. One day, Banuelos entered a guitar competition at the Sapphire Lounge at Harrah's casino in Reno . He won second place, a prize of $3,000.

"My need for the stage came back," he says.

He got a job at a Guitar Center in Reno and played at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino. His marriage broke up, and his ex-wife and two young daughters live in Southern California.

Back in the music world, albeit in a casino town, Banuelos became intrigued with one word mentioned over and over: Austin.

"I kept hearing it from everybody," he said. "I don't believe there's coincidence. I think that's God's way of being anonymous."

On Jan. 12, 2009, he pulled into Austin in his silver Honda Civic to take a transfer job with the Guitar Center on Anderson Lane.

"I had nothing. I wanted to start all over out here."

He found every open mike in the city but didn't make much money. Within a few months, he was homeless, sleeping in his car behind the 24-hour Magnolia Cafe on South Congress Avenue or at the homes of friends. But he never stopped hustling for gigs, even if they didn't pay.

"I play to 10,000 people every time I go to an open mike with six people," he says.

He played every benefit concert he could and started offering free guitar lessons at Ruta Maya on Sunday evenings. On the side, he gave private lessons for a fee, and he followed up with every booking agent, bar owner or restaurant manager he met.

Chef and restaurateur David Garrido hired him to play brunch at Garrido's for a few months. But his breakthrough was landing the gig at Annie's last summer. Patrons hired him for private parties, weddings and wine tastings. He played the Texas Book Festival gala last fall and now plays four to six gigs a week.

"I would never leave Austin," he says.

dgamino@statesman.com; 445-3675