The students in the Los Angeles High School marching band have a new director who knows the nuances of the program because he was formerly a student in the band himself.
Akhani Cacao was hired as the new band director after the departure of former band director Darnella Davidson, who held the position for 28 years and moved on to lead the band program at San Pedro High School. Cacao was one of Davidson’s students in the early 1990s, performing as a percussionist. He said he was initially uncertain about becoming the school’s band director, but realized it was something he needed to do for the sake of the students in the program.
Akhani said he may have never been involved in the school’s band if not for a scheduling error in 1990. He hadn’t planned to join, but the school placed him in the program and he ended up staying three years as a percussionist.
“I was a violinist before I came here. They found out I was in the orchestra in middle school and they put me in marching band,” Cacao said. “I originally had no intention of playing percussion, or being in the marching band.”
Cacao said he fondly remembers his years in the program, and is glad he experienced the camaraderie and enjoyment of performing in the band.
“I really was inspired by the sense of family that existed in the band at the time, which is why I toughed it out,” Cacao said.
The experience in the band inspired him to become a percussion instructor after he graduated from L.A. High School. He has taught at numerous Los Angeles Unified School District campuses and at schools in other cities throughout Los Angeles County. From 1998 to 2008, he was a percussion instructor at Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga. Cacao also founded the Crescendo Young Musicians Guild, a nonprofit organization that provides instruction for students who might otherwise not be exposed to music and the arts.
When he was contacted about filling in with the L.A. High band program over the summer, Cacao initially thought it would be a short-term assignment. After a couple of weeks, he was offered the job.
“My initial goal was to keep the program afloat,” Cacao added. “I didn’t want the best music program in the community to fall apart. I thought the kids deserved the same opportunity I had.”
Cacao, a resident of the West Adams District, said he feels like he has come home to L.A. High School. He is busy preparing the 52 students in the marching band and color guard for a rigorous schedule of performances. Every year in December, the musicians compete against other bands in LAUSD for the city’s Division 1A championship. The L.A. High School band has won the division championship for the past 25 years.
“The goal is to continue that, because we want to win again,” Cacao said. “My intent is to grow the program so we can compete at a higher level. Our percussion ensemble has 10 to 15 players. Next year, I plan to have 25.”
Cacao plans to reach out to middle and elementary schools in the area to recruit musicians for L.A. High. hopes to instill the same values he learned in the program 25 years ago, when he was part of the championship band.
“There is a lot of research about the academic benefits of music. [Students] tend to do better in classes and are motivated to attend school regularly. It teaches teamwork, trust and perseverance,” Cacao said. “I have an incredible staff, and for the upcoming school year, I want the students to learn a different style of music. I want them to learn that they are musicians who just happen to compete. We are going to be surprising a lot of people and raising a lot of eyebrows.”
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