From DRUM! Magazine’s January 2018 Issue | By Brad Boynton
What has six sides and takes a beating? The answer is the cajon, one of the most popular percussion instruments in the studio and on the street. A long time ago, probably right after the inventions of fire and the wheel, came the box. After all, since the beginning of time we’ve needed to carry, store, and organize our belongings.
And I’m sure that since those early days, rhythmically inclined individuals have flipped them over and banged on them. I know I did as a kid, and my dad’s Amway sample-box didn’t last long after I discovered how great it sounded with a pair of drumsticks.
The word cajon is literally Spanish for box (drawer, crate, even coffin), and the cajon as a drum shows up in many cultures, on several continents, and over generations of time. The enduring traditions that have influenced our music and instrument development can generally be traced back to Spanish colonies in the Americas, including Peru, Cuba, and other Caribbean nations.
Born Of Necessity
In the 18th Century, drums across the region were banned because they threatened those in power. Soon, Peruvian port cities such as Lima saw an abundance of crates, drawers, and sides of wardrobes used as instruments by slaves.
Though its birth could have been decades before, one of the first images of a cajon accompanying popular music in Peru was in a drawing by Peruvian artist Ignacio Merino dating from 1841.
The Peruvian cajon in its purist form is a six-sided instrument, with a sound hole cut into the back panel. The front panel, or tapa, is made from thin wood for resonance, leaving the other five sides to provide the structure.
The sound is dry, the root tone is bass, and its primary role is as an accompaniment instrument. It traditionally didn’t have or need the bells and whistles, buzzes and snares that have been added to it over the years.
Peru is also home to one of the coolest instruments on the planet, the cajita (tiny box), which is evolved from the boxes in churches used to collect and store money. It’s played with one hand opening and closing the hinged lid while the other hand strikes the side of the box with a stick.
Today, Peru is still a major innovator and exporter of cajons, which have become popular worldwide thanks in part to one of its native sons, percussion great Alex Acuña.
Cuba is another country in which the cajon had a parallel development. Cajons are ubiquitous on the island, and yet haven’t reached the worldwide popularity of their Peruvian cousin. On a trip to Cuba, I asked musicologist Dr. Olavo Alen Rodriguez how drums had evolved in Cuba over the years. He explained that Afro-Cuban dock workers in port cities like Havana and Matanzas were repurposing old cod (bacalao) and candle crates coming from Spain, flipping them over and using them as drums.
At the end of the day, he explained, dockworkers would retreat to the courtyards or solares of their public housing, where the crates evolved along with song and dance into three distinct styles of rumba: columbia, guaguanco, and yambu.
Over time, the crates evolved in the hands of each local craftsman to ultimately emerge as a distinctly Cuban version of the cajon, mostly of the five-sided pyramidal variety, and in different sizes and voices.
In tracing the roots of the cajon in rumba, scholar David Penalosa says, “the side of a cabinet functioned in the role of the present-day tumba or salidor, while an overturned drawer served as the quinto.” As had occurred in other Caribbean and South American countries, Cuban President Gerardo Machado in 1925 banned “bodily contortions” and “drums of African nature” in public. The drums once again had to go underground, and it was here, behind the walls of the solares, where the cajon not only found its voice, but could be blended in with everyday home furnishings so as not to be detected by authorities.
Cuban cajons are usually held in the lap; are pitched high (quinto), medium (salidor or tres dos), or low (tumba), with the sit-down bajo being the only one resembling its Peruvian cousin. Moreover, the pitch and melody in rumba are far more important than just a bass note.
Each drummer plays a drum that has a distinct role in the overall sound. Those distinct roles and pitches are what allow them to intermix, side by side, with congas when playing rumba.
Another everyday box drum you’ll find in Cuba is the rectangular cata (gua-gua, cajita china), a cross between a box drum and a giant woodblock that is played with sticks and closely synced with the clave.
Although this seemed to have happened independently of the Peruvian tradition, it originated out of the same need to use what was available while simultaneously adapting the box drums as a tool to subvert the ban on slaves owning or playing drums.
Recent Emigration To Spain
We tend to talk about Cuban, Peruvian, and flamenco cajons as if they evolved at the same place, at the same time. But the flamenco cajon is a much more recent development. The story goes that Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas discovered the cajon while on tour in Peru in the 1970s.
Composer and cajon master Caitro Soto gave them a cajon to take back to Spain — and the rest is history. There, it quickly assimilated into flamenco and adapted to Spanish musical sensibilities with the addition of guitar strings, bells, and other rattles mounted on the inside to give the instrument more depth. Prior to the 1970s, the percussion instruments in flamenco were largely just hands and feet.
So when we refer to the flamenco cajon in the industry, it’s the one with guitar strings, and loose corners that enable it to be a kit-in-a-box. It’s a bass drum, a snare, and a seat all in one. Most flamenco cajons have intentional screws in both upper corners that are designed for the player to loosen or tighten, much in the same way that a kit drummer will adjust snare wires to have a whole spectrum of sounds, from clean and dry to downright dirty. If you haven’t loosened the top screws on your cajon, give it a try!
Spain, Cuba, and Peru are just some of the forebears to today’s cajon. In researching for this article, I came across a Lakota square drum; ancient Egyptian and Chinese square drums; the Jamaican rumba box (marimbula), which is like a giant kalimba; as well as an entire genre of square drums from Central and West Africa.
Though I have doubts that a drum from the Ming Dynasty is related to the contemporary cajon, we do have to ask ourselves if it’s possible that there is an African connection. The verdict of an African connection to the cajon and other box drums is definitive, but maybe not in the way you might expect.
Most articles on the subject are scant and just say that African slaves brought it to the New World. But what does that mean? Did they bring drums with them? Did they have memories of drums back home, which they in turn made in the colonies as slaves? Did they not have any drums resembling those back home, and so improvised cod crates and drawers to create something new?
The evolution definitely began in Africa, traveled to the Americas, and returned to Africa in an entirely different form. It’s the difference between logs and lumber. Drums in Africa are generally carved from logs with chisels; while carpenters wielding saws make cajons using lumber, hand planes, glue, and clamps.
Even today, where you find square drums in African countries such as Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, and Ghana, for example, they tend to be made in urban centers by carpenters rather than in the more rural areas by carvers — two entirely different professions.
But do they spring from the same well? I put that question out to three West African drummers who play the rectangular tamali (kolomashie), siko, and gome drums (the gome is a big square box drum covered one side with goat or antelope skin and played with hands and feet).
I got three different answers. One said that African slaves were sent by the Portuguese to their territories to construct buildings, and returned with the carpentry skills to make box drums. That would date it back to the 15th Century, since the Portuguese were among the first to colonize West Africa.
Another said it was the Kru (Liberian) sailors who were not only free during much of the slave trade, but who gained knowledge of rectangular drums while sailing back and forth on slave ships to the Americas.
A third repeated something his grandfather had told him: that during the 18th to early 19th Centuries, box drums were introduced to the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) by repatriating slaves who passed through West Africa on their way back to Cameroon.
Some songs accompanying the gome drum tell those stories. But all three acknowledged that while their box drums had natural skins for a playing surface, the first completely wooden cajons seem to have come from South America.
When it comes to drums and drumming, the roads usually point back to Africa. But in this case, the roads all lead to the Americas where the cajon developed and, like a conversation, came back to Africa, where it has undergone its own evolution.
Present Day Cajons
Today the cajon is one of the most popular, accessible, and visible drums worldwide. Every year there are new versions (pocket cajons, bongo cajons, collapsible cajons, turbo cajons, electronic cajons), as well as accessories that are driving innovation and the ways in which this drum is played — for example, cajon brushes, pedals, seats, ports, microphone pickups — even sound effects that can be attached to the cajon itself. Cajons aren’t just made from box-jointed plywood anymore, but now include fiberglass and acrylic in addition to a modern wooden stave-constructed version.
Most major brands have dozens of cajons to satisfy nearly any niche. Some, such as Gon Bops, Meinl, and A Tempo, import gorgeous inlaid Peruvian cajons into the U.S. Other companies, such as LP, Tycoon, and Pearl, import a majority of their drums from Asia, where they are able to develop beyond current traditions.
But take a peek at a few of my favorite boutique brands, including De Gregorio and La Rosa, both from Spain; Schlagwerk from Germany; and some outstanding American drum makers that include Swan, Sol, Kotz, Kopf, and the venerable Fat Congas brand, which we hear is making a comeback. These are just a few, for there are likely cajon makers in your own backyard who have their own variation of this immensely popular drum.
If you want to see something really amazing, check out the International Cajon Festival in Peru (Festival Internacional del Cajon Peruano) on YouTube, Facebook, and the web. Founded in 2007 by Peruvian musician Rafael Santa Cruz, the International Cajon Festival is an annual event in Lima, Peru that celebrates the cajon with performances, masterclasses, video screenings, and conferences.
In 2013 they set a Guinness World Record with more than 3,600 people playing the cajon together in an unlikely ensemble comprised of 1,000 prisoners, hundreds of local amateur and professional players, and other cajon aficionados from all over the world. Organizers estimate that more than 40,000 players have attended this festival to date.
A few of my favorite artists at the moment are Heidi Joubert, Pedrito Martinez, Mario Cortes, and Mike Meadows. They’re all out there adapting the old to the new and making the cajon one of the most visible and relevant instruments on the scene.
In some musical contexts, the cajon has been able to replace the drum set, and in the process it has created a new breed of drummer — one who keeps the groove while spicing it with textures that drummers previously didn’t have enough limbs to operate. Today’s cajon innovators have informed our current eclectic setups to where it’s now common to see the cajon as a home base while adding to it a low boy hi-hat, shakers, bundle sticks, foot tambourines, finger shakers, feathers — you name it!
So just how did the cajon emerge as one of the fastest-growing percussion instruments? Musicians from the entire spectrum love the cajon because it blends well with acoustic music, doesn’t have fragile animal skins, and doubles as a drum throne.
Compared to the sophistication of a drum set, a cast B20 bronze cymbal, or a stave-constructed conga drum, the cajon is accessible to musicians, to craftsmen, and your pocketbook alike.
Perhaps to the chagrin of trained drummers, the cajon doesn’t require years of lessons or precise hand technique to play, and that feature has opened it up to an entire world of students and recreational drummers. It’s a drum for everyone and now it’s official: it’s hip to be square!
Brad Boynton is the owner of Rhythm Traders in Portland, Oregon.
CAJON RESOURCES – A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES
Cajons are cool. And versatile. In recent times, the instrument has found its way into many musical genres in countries around the globe. In turn, its growing popularity has yielded an abundance of resources for an increasing number of cajon students and enthusiasts seeking information, instruction, and instruments for sale. For drummers who are on a cajon-related quest, Drum magazine presents an overview of some cajon resources as starting points.
Online Video Instruction Websites
- Cajon Box cajonbox.com
- Learn Cajon learncajon.com
- Play Cajon playcajon.org
- World Percussion By David Kuckhermann World Percussion
- Artdrum ART DRUM
- “The Cajon: A Short History” The Cajon: A Short History
- Cajon Expert Cajon Expert
- Cajon Guide Cajon Guide
- Cajon Root Cajon Root
- Exploratorium Exploratorium
- Quain Percussion Quain Percussion
- “Rhythm In A Box: The Story Of The Cajon Drum,” By Paul Jennings
- Roland Corporation Australia Roland Corporation Australia
- Absolute Beginners – Cajon: The Complete Guide To Playing the Cajon, By Noam Lederman (Music Sales America)
- The Big Instructional Book For The Cajon, By Conny Sommer
- Cajon Grooves For Beginners, By Alan Dworski (Mel Bay Publications)
- First Lessons Cajon, By Jordan Perlson (Mel Bay Publications)
- Getting Started On Cajon, By Michael Wimberly (Hudson Music)
- Hal Leonard Cajon Method, By Paul Jennings (Hal Leonard Corporation)
- Popular Hits: Cajon Play-Along, Various Artists (Hal Leonard Corporation)
- Studies For Cajon, By Martin Rottger (Mel Bay Publications)
- “Cajon Basics with Kevin Ricard”
- Cajon Grooves For Beginners, By Alan Dworsky (Mel Bay Publications)
- “Cajon Lesson,” By Daniel De Los Reyes
- Complete Cajon 1, By David Kuckhermann
- Complete Cajon 2, By David Kuckhermann
- Getting Started On Cajon, By Michael Wimberly (Hudson Music)
- “Glen Caruba’s Brush Beat Cajon Lesson”
- “How To Play The Cajon,” By Richie Gajate Garcia