Joaquin Hernandez has spent most of his adult life behind a drum set. As a teenager, he started playing in punk group Chicken Farm and opened for bands like The Dead Milkmen and Green Day. Since then, he's provided the rhythms for a variety of eclectic bands, including The B-Side Players, reggae fusion group Sol Power and salsa band Agua Dulce.
After 25 years as a musician, however, Hernandez's career came close to ending altogether. During a recording session with Agua Dulce, his hand mysteriously seized up, leaving him unable to play drums. What he didn't realize was that this unexpected affliction had long-term ramifications.
"My right hand just got stuck, and I couldn't use it anymore," he says in an interview in Chicano Park, against the sounds of a salsa band performing on the park's central stage. "The doctor that diagnosed me said I would never play drums again. That just ended it all for me."
Hernandez was ultimately diagnosed with a condition called focal dystonia, which is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscular contractions. Because of the physical limitations that the condition imposes, Hernandez couldn't continue performing the way he had been. Yet, he wasn't ready or willing to give up playing music.
Though holding drumsticks was no longer in the cards, Hernandez began to explore the idea of transitioning into electronic music. He was still able to use his fingers freely, and he discovered a MIDI-controlled electronic percussion instrument called the Zendrum, which allowed him to play beats live without getting behind an acoustic drum kit. And in 2010, Cumbia Machin was born.
Hernandez, a Chula Vista native, had already been performing cumbia—a style of Latin dance music with origins in Colombia—as a member of Agua Dulce. Likewise, it's a style of music he heard often, growing up in a Mexican family.
"It's something at every family party—everybody's always listening to it," he says.
With an entirely new approach, and a new set of instruments at his disposal, he saw possibilities in taking the sound of cumbia into new, experimental territory.
"With all the other bands, especially the last band we were playing salsa," he says. "There's a whole dance, but it's pretty complicated. Cumbia music is different because it's easier to dance to. When we would play in the salsa band, we would do some cumbias, and everyone would get up and dance. And it was around that time that I was hearing a lot of DJs experiment with electro cumbia.
"Cumbia music has always lent itself to be able to experiment," he continues. "I just do what I do and see what comes out."
The music of Cumbia Machin is anything but traditional. In fact, his debut album, Esuper Cumbia, which was released in 2012, covers a pretty broad range of styles and sounds, all built upon a solid foundation of pulsing, persistent cumbia beats. A track like "Puro Feeling," for instance, features elements of dub, with its echoing percussive sounds. Meanwhile, "Dubstep Cumbia" is more or less exactly what it sounds like, juxtaposing throbbing, wonky synthesizer bass lines against more conventional accordion touches. And "Rock the House" offers up a fun mix of distorted guitar riffs and vocoder flourishes.
As familiar and comfortable as Hernandez is with playing with the conventions of cumbia, he admits that making the transition to electronic music hasn't been without its challenges. He was able to glean some knowledge from his younger brothers, who use samplers to make hip-hop beats. And from there, he explored how to use different instruments and devices, as well as figure out the best applications for them in his music. After a couple of solo shows as Cumbia Machin, Hernandez let go of some of the initial worries about putting aside acoustic instrumentation. Though, he does admit that he still faces the kind of challenges that adopting new technologies can bring.
"Electronics is a whole different thing," he says. "With the drum, you don't need a PA system. If the power goes out, the drums still continue. So, with all this electronic stuff, I had to learn how to program synthesizers and MIDI. I got the hang of it, but there was definitely a huge learning curve going from a drum set to all these electronics. I'm still afraid of power going out. It's a nightmare."
Hernandez is the only permanent member of Cumbia Machin, though he sometimes performs with conga player Paul Lopez and saxophonist and flautist Pete Ortega. And, for now, all of the songs are instrumental, though Hernandez says he's open to incorporating vocalists in the future.
Whatever new stylistic permutations are in store for Cumbia Machin, they are born of an intense passion for music and an unwillingness to let an otherwise devastating setback get in the way of pursuing that passion.
"I could have just sat at home and said my drumming's over. But that would have been too hard for me," Hernandez says. "I had to find a way.
"Never give up, because you never know—something's gonna happen."