Oct 13, 2017
MACEO HERNANDEZ is a professional Taiko drummer whose passion for the ancient Japanese form of percussion began in the 7th grade. Despite having no rhythm or musical experience, young Maceo was determined to play Taiko, leading him on a life-changing journey to Japan and inspiring a documentary film. (51:11)
MACEO HERNANDEZ was in the 7th grade when he experienced an epiphany while listening to a Japanese Taiko group performing at a family friend’s wedding.
MACEO: “You could really feel the impact and the vibration of these Taiko drums. And it just blew me away. I went up to them and helped them load these drums into their car. I just wanted to touch and feel these drums. I knew then I wanted to play these drums, even though I had no rhythm. I never drummed in my life. I never played an instrument. But the Taiko drum drew me to want to play it, even though I didn’t know anything about it.”
Having a Mexican-American teenager dedicate himself to the ancient Japanese form of percussion made Maceo something of a curiosity to many in LA’s Japanese-American community, including documentary filmmaker John Esaki. John produced and directed a film called “Maceo: Demon Drummer From East LA.”
JOHN: “Here was a young person who was not Japanese or Japanese-American and he was really so passionate about playing the Taiko drum. It just fascinated me that someone outside of the Japanese culture would have this interest. With Maceo, I always thought he was very genuine about following his interest. He found something that gave him great joy to participate in and he was going to follow that path to see where it led.”
Where it led was to Japan. At the age of 15, Maceo was recruited by Ondekoza, a celebrated and highly athletic Taiko troupe that performs concerts around the world.
MACEO: “One of the main things we did in Ondekoza was run. We were very famous for running a marathon and then performing Taiko afterwards. So running was a big part of our daily life. We’d wake up in the morning and we’d run. In the afternoon, we’d run again. Part of this training was to build up stamina for the shows that we would perform. One day, I was running and this truck was carrying metal pipes. They rolled off and landed on me. I woke up in the hospital after a seven-hour operation. A week later, they amputated my left leg. And there began a new journey.”
The first steps of Maceo’s new journey began with long, dark nights far away from home in a Japanese hospital. He says it was difficult for him to reconcile his newly altered physical form with his intense desire to be a professional drummer. But over the next couple months, Maceo’s Taiko drum helped him find his way out of the darkness.
MACEO: “It might sound strange, but I used to talk to my drum and try to have a communication with it on a different level than other members had. Hitting this drum, gave me all this energy back and gave me the will to continue on with my goals. It pretty much took over me and helped me not be sad all the time and not feel discouraged. This drum was my friend. It was my therapy.”
Less than a year after his accident in Japan, Maceo Hernandez returned to the United States and ran the New York City Marathon on a prosthetic leg. Moments after crossing the finish line, fellow members of Ondekoza carried him to a nearby stage where he performed a 15-minute Taiko solo.
The spectacular moment epitomized Ondekoza’s principle of Sogakuron – that running and drumming are one, and a reflection of the drama and energy of life.
Many thanks to the Blue Dot Sessions for the opening and closing music featured in this episode royalty free through Creative Commons licensing:
1. "Cases for Rest" by Blue Dot Sessions - sessions.blue/sessions/
2. "Thannoid" by Blue Dot Sessions - sessions.blue/sessions/