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Taiko en Español

Photo by Gregory BojorquezMaceo Hernandez stands tall in front of the shime, a snare-sized Japanese drum mounted on a waist-level wooden stand. He stares straight ahead, seemingly at something in the distance, but inside this Buddhist temple in Montebello, the distance is within. His arms work in a blur of great sweeping circles, his bachi (sticks) almost skimming the side of his head, sweat running down his temples.The shime snaps with sharp reports indicating that every cubic inch of its interior space is filled. No vacancy.“You know how I said to bring the bachi up around your ears, if you can?” he says to about a dozen students gathered before him in half-circle. “You should imagine you are almost slicing your ears off with each stroke. That’s how we thought of it in Ondekoza.”Ondekoza (“Demon Drummers”) is one of the premier taiko (Japanese for “big drum”) groups in Japan, and a teenage Hernandez was once one of its premier members. But on Tuesday nights at Sozenji Buddhist Temple — headquarters of the Taiko Center of Los Angeles — Hernandez, now 33, is a part-time sensei, a Demon Drummer of East L.A.He breaks from another drill to announce something to his mostly Asian-American class: “So I wanted to mention, you know, the name of my group is East L.A. Taiko, but it’s not a traditional taiko group,” he says with a smile and a hint of mischief. “So if you come to the concert, be ready. And if you don’t like it — don’t tell me!” The concert on August 25 is the debut of the latest version of Hernandez’s cultural/musical meltdown: a kind of meshing of Latin, rock and Japanese textures. It’s easily the most unorthodox taiko performance taking place as part of the Japanese American National Museum’s ongoing “Big Drum” exhibit. The songs are mostly en español, but the beat is from Japan.“I can never imagine playing in the group that he played in in Japan,” says Alfredo Ortiz, Beastie Boys percussionist and now a member of East L.A. Taiko (along with keyboardist Walter Miranda, vocalist Cava, bassist Billy Harrigan and guitarist Louis Perez III, son of Los Lobos drummer Louis Perez). “When Maceo showed me the ropes of playing taiko, I was tired in the first five minutes. So to imagine what [Ondekoza] went through every single day as far as training is something that not a lot of people get to experience. It’s a great feat in one’s life. Unfortunately, to have the accident that he did, to turn his life around is even more ...” Ortiz’s voice trails off, and well it might. Words don’t come easily in describing the loss of a limb. At the height of Hernandez’s burgeoning career — a venture that required him to trade Garfield High and his beloved East L.A. for life in Japan — he was training for an Ondekoza group run in the New York City Marathon, to be followed that day by a concert at Carnegie Hall. High on a mountain road in Nagoya, on the 30th mile of a solo jog, his left leg was impaled by pipe falling from a truck.The 19-year-old awoke in a hospital, arguing in vain for the preservation of the limb. Ten days later, it was removed above the knee. A mere two months after that, determination overruled shock and depression, and Hernandez was sneaking out in a wheelchair to hit a drum. Seven months later, as planned, he stood at the starting line of the marathon, propped on a prosthesis and two short metal crutches. Astoundingly, he finished the race in seven hours, ignoring pain and further injury to the leg, then headed for Carnegie Hall. “I was so exhausted,” he remembers, “but the goal was to do the marathon and play odaiko [the large overhead drum, on which he had never soloed]. I was carried to the stage. I can’t tell you what kind of solo I played. All I know is I was trying to play my heart out on this drum for the first time. And after I finished, I moved to the center of the drum and I remember giving it a kiss, then I dropped my sticks and pretty much collapsed.” It plays like a fable, or a movie — something that Maceo’s longtime family friend John Esaki, a producer/director, recognized. The story is preserved in Esaki’s 1994 film Maceo: Demon Drummer of East L.A., which will screen before East L.A. Taiko’s concert at the museum. There is another twist to this remarkable saga: The kid might never have taken up the drum at all if his mother had not been a social activist prominent in Chicano rights and the migrant farm-workers’ movement. The Rev. Tom Kurai, Hernandez’s first taiko teacher, picks up the story: “I met Maceo in 1984, after restarting Sozenji Taiko at the temple in April of 1983, when he was about 12 years old,” says Kurai, abbot at Sozenji and founder of the Taiko Center. “His mother, Barbara Hernandez, was an activist and came into contact with Japanese-American activists. Her friends Tommy and Julie Kochiyama were in Sozenji Taiko. Tommy’s mother is the well-known New York activist Yuri Mary Kochiyama, who worked with Malcolm X and was at his side when he was shot. Maceo first saw our group at Tommy and Julie’s wedding reception where Sozenji Taiko played at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.”Hernandez hasn’t forgotten: “It was in a small cafeteria room, and you could really feel the power of the taiko. It pretty much, from the get-go, knocked me off my feet. It just seemed like such a soulful instrument.”He asked for lessons, Kurai took him on, and from the first downbeat, his focus was singular. Maceo remained with Sozenji Taiko for three years, literally the child of the group, until Ondekoza visited L.A. and its founder, Den Tagayasu, “drafted” the boy. Before long, Hernandez had abandoned his dream of becoming “one of the varsity jocks” at Garfield, and was living in Japan, more or less in a communal life of rigorous training with Ondekoza: music and running, music and running ... “Mr. Den didn’t want me to conform and become a traditional player,” he says. “One of the things he liked about me was my playing was a little different than the others. He said he wanted me to bring the Latino side of me out more. I think he was almost teaching me not to look at taiko as a Japanese instrument, look at it as your instrument.“Of course,” he adds with a laugh, “he didn’t mean throw a sombrero in...” In a day when hybrid world music is a cliché, Hernandez’s incorporation of taiko retains integrity, says Kurai, because of his training in Japan. That makes “what East L.A. Taiko does legitimate and uncompromising in regard to protecting taiko as a traditional art form.”It’s true. For all the multiculturalism of East L.A. Taiko, Hernandez’s taiko heart remains with the discipline and ethos of Ondekoza. You can see it in his technique. The man does not appear to be striking the drum hard, yet it thunders and throbs — and sometimes actually moves around at his feet, almost as if to squirm away. How he does that, exactly, he won’t say, but he’ll teach you. And as far as Hernandez goes, it’s all to the good: traditional, hybrid, multicultural.“I think there’s a whole new younger taiko generation,” he says. “A lot of kids are taking taiko in college now. So when you’re younger, you listen to music of today. And that’s moving taiko in different directions. The songs seem to groove a little more, you know?” East L.A. Taiko plays at the Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. First St., Thursday, August 25, at 7:30 p.m. (213) 625-0414.