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Finding the Heart of Music

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“Life is timeless, days are long when you’re young

You used to fall in love with everyone

Any guitar and any bass drum

Life is a drink and you get drunk when you’re young…

…And you find out life isn’t like that

It’s so hard to understand

Why the world is your oyster but your future’s a clam…”

Paul Weller, “When You’re Young”

When the lights go on, the amps start humming, and the roar of the crowd fills their ears, the last thing on any musician’s mind is: “Do I have enough health coverage?”

After all, one of the reasons people go to gigs is to forget about humdrum stuff like medical insurance.

But life has a way of creeping up on you, and musicians often find out-the hard way-that they’re not exempt from the slings and arrows that plague the rest of us. The usual short-term musician solutions-cutting down on the booze, turning vegan-don’t make them immune to health issues minor and major.

The lucky few on the upper echelons of the music business have got it covered, but the great majority of working musicians-session players, lounge singers, struggling show band members-live from one gig to the next, barely subsisting on rock-bottom talent fees.

At the end of the day, they’re just another sector of the working poor. And it only takes one major illness-a crippling stroke, a malignant tumor, a road accident resulting in serious injuries—to render a musician unemployable.

Of course, when illness strikes down one of their own, the music community often comes together in an inspiring show of camaraderie and support. When singer and activist Susan Fernandez was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008, her fellow musicians threw several fund-raising concerts to help pay for her chemotherapy and hospitalization. The same thing happened when jazz guitarist Edgar Avenir came down with lung cancer in 2011.

Time and again, fellow musicians have shown their willingness to help, organizing events and performing for free to help raise the money for the medical treatment of an ailing comrade.

But even the most well-attended benefits can raise only a fraction of the health care costs that serious illnesses incur. And with chronic ailments, donor- and volunteer fatigue set in as treatments drag on.

Chalk it up to creeping middle age, but as musicians who emerged in the “alternative music” era of the Nineties enter their forties and fifties, health becomes a major concern.

It was in the midst of a deep funk—not the rhythmic kind—following the death of Susan Fernandez that her friend and fellow singer Myra Ruaro, a.k.a. Skarlet, thought of organizing some sort of HMO for musicians.

Her first instinct was to approach the established musicians’ groups with the idea. She soon discovered that there was no single organization representing all musicians. The original musicians’ union, the Philippine Musicians Guild, was established in the 1950s by the late pianist and educator Fred Robles, but remains moribund despite numerous attempts to revive it.

The Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit or OPM only represented singers, the Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino or AMP Foundation represented instrumentalists and session musicians, while Filscap represented composers and songwriters, mainly for purposes of protecting copyright and collecting royalties. There was even a group for folk singers, called Folk Cause, with similar concerns but limited to performers of that particular genre.

After discussions with fellow musicians such as singers Cookie Chua and Googoo de Jesus, Ruaro came up with the idea for Heart of Music (HOM), a non-government organization that would focus on health care coverage for all working musicians.

“Our idea was for a catch-all organization for any type of musician, whether singer, songwriter or instrumentalist,” says Ruaro. “We also decided to include people who aren’t strictly speaking musicians, but who work in the industry, such as recording technicians and roadies.”

Early on, she adds, they decided to divide the membership into only two categories: one for musicians 50 years old and above, whether working or semi-retired, the group most likely to need health care in the near future, and one for active musicians below 50, who may still need assistance for health issues. “We want to focus HOM’s assistance on health care,” she says.

The first step for the group was to build a relationship with Philhealth, since it currently provides the most accessible and affordable coverage. Many musicians, she says, have never had any form of health insurance, since only a few have had permanent employment. The notion of making health insurance payments is also alien to them.

Through HOM, older musicians can be guided through the admittedly tedious process of applying for membership, making the initial payments, and availing themselves of benefits when their time of need comes. With HOM as intermediary, musicians can avail themselves of lower premiums and shorter waiting times for eligibility.

“Our target for 2013 is to sign up at least 100 aging musicians,” says Ruaro. Their numbers are  dwindling, she adds. In the last few months alone, for instance, several musicians have died, among them veteran jazz bassist Roger Herrera and guitarist and composer Eddie Munji III.
Heart of Music Organization Phil.  will be launched formally on January 17 with a fundraising concert.

As of now the group includes Ruaro as president, R.G. Salazar of Hapinoy as vice president, de Jesus as secretary, pianist Butch Saulog as legal counsel, and Chua, Cadio Ferreria, Julius Alip and Bam Aquino as board members.

But already, the group has begun the legwork for building a network of resources for its membership, including the Department of Health, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (which has a program for assisting indigent musicians), private entities such as pharmaceutical companies and other institutions willing to extend a helping hand, individual medical professionals, and other NGOs among them the Universal Health Care Group, an organization of doctors advocating universal health coverage.

HOM also plans to partner up with the Philippine Red Cross to build up a blood bank for the future needs of its members.

When artist and musician Lirio Salvador of Intermidya fell victim to a hit-and-run driver, for instance, he required immediate blood transfusions, and fellow musicians had to organize a text brigade to round up potential donors.

Another preliminary activity is building up a database for its membership, which will include both the member’s musical and medical history, all to be kept confidential, of course.

HOM also has two secondary goals: to help members improve their livelihood, and to empower younger musicians through music education.

It has begun talks with a microfinancing NGO, to identify musician families who might be able to benefit from a small loan for starting up a livelihood project, such as a small community-based music school or training in electronics and musical instrument repair. Such programs, says Ruaro, can help a musician’s family supplement their income.

In turn, HOM can provide seminars on, for instance, how to run a small business for its members.

Ruaro is in a singular position to push HOM’s objectives, having worked as a med rep for a pharmaceutical company, before turning to music full-time as frontwoman for Put3Ska, the Brownbeat All-Stars and as jazz chanteuse Skarlet.

Along the way she lost several friends and colleagues in the music scene to serious illnesses, and has seen first hand the difficulties that musicians and their families face when dealing with a health crisis.

Last year she sold her club Skarlet’s Jazz Kitchen to focus full time on HOM.

“When Koyang [Edgar Avenir] died, I went and hid in a cave for three months,” she says. “When I came back I decided to do this.”

She adds that she has a feeling the movement will snowball once a critical mass is reached.

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