Healing the mind, body, and spirit through drumming; Aaron Tafoya has achieved this for himself and he hopes others. In 2011, he blended spirituality with his passion for drumming, resulting in his handmade Cajóns, his patented Wedge Cajón, and other percussive instruments. This past year he presented his line at NAMM for the first time, and the future looks bright.
Minnesota Drummer spoke with Aaron to learn more about his history, being a player in the Minnesota music scene, and the unique methodology to crafting his instruments.
MND: Can you give us a little history on yourself? How long have you been a hand percussionist?
Aaron: I grew up in Ramsey MN, attended District 11 schools, and later the College of Visual Arts in St.Paul in 1997. Drum kit lessons and percussion started in junior high with an instructor from Coon Rapids named Diesel Tucker. I started Conga in high school concert band at Anoka senior high on a composition called “Voodoo” by Daniel Bukvich.
MND: What was your initial inspiration in hand percussion?
Aaron: My dad met Chico Perez (a percussion legend here in MN who is still going at it) (MND story here: https://minnesotadrummer.com/?p=758) at a bar called Arturos in the early 1970’s. They later stayed friends through my dad’s barbershop. While in my late teens, it seemed like whenever I would see Chico he would always get on my case to practice and start taking drumming more seriously. At that time I didn’t know drumming would later be a part of my, life but I think he did, as did my band director Jon Lace at Anoka senior high.
MND: Can you speak to the connection of the instrument to mind and spirit?
Aaron: Yes. The short answer is a heart connection. Playing music has an unspoken way of shifting your body from matter to vibration. Our biorhythms change when we drum, which helps regulate emotions. You know it when it happens and can’t fake the connection or feeling because it’s often a mutual feeling the moment it happens. I started a meditation practice in 2003, and literally one week into the practice things started happening; unexpected things with regards to personal development physically, mentally and spiritually. I was waking up to old programs that no longer served me and some unconscious PTSD junk. It felt like I was waking up from a bad dream. It was then that a new paradigm shift emerged in my heart, calling me back to the drum. I quit playing for several years due to battling with depression from about 1997-2003. I view the heart as the mind. It speaks a language of vibration. The music is an extension of the heart. Being a student of the heart has brought me to a path that would have surpassed my reality up until then. This means my musicological understanding of the significance of drumming surpassed the common egoistic approach to the stage and into an understanding of shamanism through ancient knowledge and neuroscience. It’s a peculiar thing, but instruments often choose us. The depth that the instrument takes you is congruent to the depths of our hearts craving for understanding. Pain is a brilliant teacher.
MND: Who have you performed with that we may know?
Aaron: In the past 10 years I have performed with a broad spectrum of bands. Some of the more recent ones have been international acts such as Nepal groups Shyamm, 1974AD and Nimba Rumba courtesy of Suwal Singh of Momosauce productions. Another recent was a live music video by Stacy Frenes and Nate Sabin. On a more local level, I got a call to participate in what was a 4-year run on percussion with Mick Sterling productions for several tribute bands. I’ve gigged with a group called the Chronic Quintet over the years performing great jazz standards and originals composed by Dick Kronick, who also played upright bass. In between there have been dozens of one-off performances and short-term gigs on hand percussion and kit with artists such as national award winning uke player Keldon Ancheda, Paveille french, Dem Atlas, TC Jammers, Donald Washington, Jerry Kosak, Sam Kuusisto Band, Eric Carranza, Yeti Steady, Northern Trio, and a recent Roy Orbison tribute on a fun little cajon kit.
MND: Do you play out locally often and where can we see you play?
Aaron: I do play locally. We have a CD release coming up soon at the Warming House and the Lansburo Theater performing a bunch of compositions by Eric Carranza. I sit in a few times with the Chronic Quintet performing originals and standards at Nola’s and Green Lantern. Any tribute is usually in a theater in the greater metro area.
MND: What was the inspiration to manufacture your own Cajóns?
Aaron: Around 2010, I was playing in a Top 40 electro-acoustic group lead by Sam Kuusisto for a couple years as a percussionist. Mostly out of necessity, I started playing feet oriented reverse kickdrum and high-hat patterns under my conga grooves. I built my first Cajón out of some old wine crates and gigged on it for two years. It was a natural progression; simple and effective.
MND: When did you start Empowered Percussion?
Aaron: It was around late 2011. It was originally called Set Cajón. In 2013 it changed to Empowered Percussion, the new name seemed to embrace all aspects of what drumming has always been and has done for people.
MND: Do you manufacture all your instruments?
Aaron: Yes, while subject to change I hand-craft all aspects of our line of drums with the help of my favorite robots (aka CNC and laser machine). All of our products are designed, real world tested, and machined to my liking using engineer software such as Solid Works and Autodesk Fusion 360. I have been surrounded by several friends and luthiers such as Studio 24 guitars, Huke guitars, and bass maker Jeff Rossi.
MND: Where did you learn the nuances of crafting these instruments?
Aaron: I started building Cajóns in my glass fusion studio at the time where I shared a space with a blacksmith. Being an artist, experimenting with my drums came naturally. It was a bit of an obsession in the beginning and still is. I’m always inventing new ideas. I was never held back and could put in long hours mastering new ideas on my drums.
MND: Empowered Percussion sounds like a blend of the love of the instrument and spirituality. Can you speak to your story behind the name?
Aaron: It started from meditation practice in 2003. I had PTSD for the majority of my life, and the inner pioneering and transformation sparked a longing and embodiment to truth and sobriety. Empowered Percussion is an inspired term, as I feel I am called to percussion as a life path and personal vocation. I have become sort of a drum-evangelist for the health benefits. People need a healthy disruption in their life patterns and drumming covers all the bases. While not trying to over think it, local percussionist Babatunde taught me that the nature of drumming covers aspects of physical, spiritual, and mental health. Historically, drumming and especially Cajón drumming were an integral part of helping Afro-Peruvian slaves get through dire circumstances. I’ve learned first-hand that playing a drum is the ancient anti-depressant, activating dopamine, serotonin, and much more. The rekindling and my rebirth years ago have helped shift my self-worth to gear my life and belief systems around a higher cause through the gift of percussion and craftsmanship.
MND: You have a number of interesting products. You’ve put a lot of thought behind taking the instrument further through your own development. Let’s start with the Tani Fiber Sticks, they are your design. Can you break down the features of this stick?
Aaron: Sure, the Tani Stick came from a need of playing Cajón kit and some jazz brush work on traditional kit. With Cajón drumming, I used a lot of right-handed dominant brush sticks and co-developed my own brush with a broom maker. While the traditional metal brush was effective serving has a simulated hi-hat and bass, it put a lot of metal particulates into the head of the drum and scuffed it up. I knew there was a solution. The Tani Stick solved the dirtying of the head and also solved the age-old challenge of those quick transitions from brushes to sticks for ride work. The rigidness of the stick and the timbre of the broom corn feels sturdy and acts similar to a traditional wire brush.
Our newest drum that we launched at the 2020 Namm show is a Ka-Djembe. It functions like a djembe but lighter. It responds like a big bass Cajón drum. The Ka-Djembe drum is also snare tunable, but unique because it is playable in three different positions. You can dissemble the stand to sit directly on the ground to play the drum in front of you. It’s great for playing with your Tabla buddies or gigs/situations that you need to just sit all the way down like Kirtan or yoga gigs.
The Contour Cajón is our luxury Cajón with steam-bent corners and low 51-58 Hz bass tone, bongo upgrade, and custom-turned knobs and paint application. Our signature Cajón is a smaller traditional-sized Spanish flamenco Cajón. It can be upgraded with ergo-walnut inlays, a variety of snare knob options, and of course the bongo upgrade. Lastly, we have designed leather and wax canvas Cajón bags, providing a great aesthetic and utility bag to last a lifetime.
MND: What problem were you trying to address with the Tani Sticks?
Aaron: First and foremost, I want to teach American drum kit players that there is a whole new world and simplicity of merging natural fiber sticks techniques onto Cajón percussion. I’ve developed an interesting heal/toes technique with the fiber sticks. While I think it is a high value proposition for my customers, using the Tani Sticks naturally protect the Cajón of wear and tear, but also opens up more creative possibility. With a simple stick-flip, you can use the butt of the stick with modified wood tips to play cymbals or any other intended surface likes toms or bells. We also found other broom corn sticks out there were not built as robustly, so we are not sacrificing quality. These are literally hand made by a 3rd generation Broom grass engineer.
MND: The Empowered Wedge Cajon with what you filed a patent on is a unique design. Tell us about this product.
Aaron: That drum was birthed on a whim primarily from dealing with geometry all day in the drum shop. Being a novel concept but still a highly functional Cajón drum, it’s a Cajón percussionist’s little gem. Fashionable, lightweight, ergonomic, it has a tunable snare and is acoustically versatile, especially when mic’ed. We were happy to see the drum go viral this year at the 2020 NAMM show.
MND: How different is the sound compared to a standard Cajon?
Aaron: Believe it or not the Wedge Cajón has a bass tone at around 95 Hz. Think of it like a 14-inch floor tom. If you mic it up, it’s hard to tell the difference between a basic Cajón and the Wedge. I should note that we do offer one of the best Cajón pickups on the market as well as one of the lower-toned Cajóns in our luxury line of Cajón drums.
MND: These are offered with and without a snare component, is this a unique feature to your Cajóns in addition to their shape?
Aaron: I would say yes. It is a unique semi-feature being able to access a traditional Peruvian sound (no snare) vs. the flamenco sound with snare. All of our drums are adjustable and often made with hand-turned snare nobs on the lathe.
MND: This year you presented at the NAMM show, how were your products received?
Aaron: Our company and products were well received with attention from five different international distributors from five different countries, including a major one here in the United States. We turned a lot of heads with my innovations and it was great to play with some percussion legends and other world-class percussionists. Lots of smiles and mini jams!
MND: Where can we see your instruments locally?
Aaron: Groth Music has carried our line of drums in the past and hopefully will again this year as a vendor vs. consignment. In addition, a few other stores are being pursued such as the Twin Cities Drum Collective, Klash, Twin Town, and a few shops in other cities. People are always welcome to book an appointment with me and try them out in the Allen building where the Empowered Percussion recording studio and showroom resides in Lowertown St.Paul. Plus there is free parking!
Mick Sterling Cate Fierro Madman Across the Water:
Empowered Signature Cajón:
Empowered Percussion Cajón drums – Aaron performance:
TLC Wedge Cajon – Aaron performance:
Empowered Percussion on the web: