Though simple in design, the cajon is one of the most symbolic and powerful percussion instruments that has ever existed. It’s a bass drum, snare, and seat all in one convenient package.
Because of its rich history and the circumstances in which it was invented, the cajon strongly symbolizes African musical culture and expression.
The Introduction Of The Cajon
In the late 17th century, African slaves were brought overseas to Peru in order to work in factories and tea plantations. Playing music was outlawed by the owners for fear of it creating a gathering or uprising that could overthrow them, and this was a bit of a problem for the slaves whose very own culture was centered around music.
To get around this, the slaves would secretly drum on things like tea boxes, stools, and other ordinary objects. This way the instruments could be hidden in plain sight and played at any time without raising suspicion. (Feldman, Heidi: “Black Rhythms of Peru” p. 21-22. Wesleyan University Press, 2006.
The first real cajon was eventually created in Peru by combining slabs of wood to create 5 sides of a box, using a thin piece of wood to close it off (the striking surface called the tapa), and then cutting a hole on the backside to allow the sound to escape.
In the 1970’s, Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía travelled to Peru with his band and fell in love with the cajon. After modifying it slightly by stretching guitar strings along the front of the box to create a buzzing sound, they found it a perfect compliment to flamenco music.
Paco de Lucia and his band brought this new cajon back to Spain for all to enjoy and its presence quickly spread throughout Europe, and eventually the rest of the world. Since then the cajon has been used in many styles of music including folk, jazz, blues, and rock, and according to Wikipedia its fame continues to grow each year.
Since its introduction, the cajon has evolved in many ways. From changing the shape of the snare wires, to adding accessories and even adding kick pedals, musicians are always going to find a way to add extra life where they can.
In its most basic form, the traditional Peruvian cajon is nothing but an empty box with a sound hole. The lack of snare wires give it a crisp/dry sound that is great for soft styles of music.
The next evolution came from the aforementioned Paco de Lucía when he added guitar strings across the front face, leading to a controlled buzz sound. Typically one or two pairs of wires are used today, but depending on the manufacturer you can sometimes find 4 or more pairs which allow for more flexibility in the snare sound. The tension of these wires is also becoming easier to adjust with modern advancements in construction. Many entry-level cajons are now coming fitted with a Direct Tension System which is a knob used to easily adjust tension.
The sound hole has also been altered over time between various manufacturers in order to achieve many different tones. There are 3 main configurations you’ll find today – center back, off center, and side. The center back placement allows for a loud and punchy tone which is great for recordings, although sustain and resonance take a back seat which might not be ideal for live playing. The off center sound hole placement allows for more resonance and sustain, and the side placement brings the bass presence more up-front which can be great for live acoustic gigs. Each have their own benefits and drawbacks, so it’s worth having an idea of where you’ll be using it most before purchasing.
As an added effect, some manufacturers include bells attached to the front face. This provides an increased “cut” to the sound that some players look for. Over the past few years there have been many other enhancements like a flared sound hole introduced by Pearl for increased bass response, and a rear compensation plate on some J Leiva cajons which help alleviate some of the “boxy” sounds being produced.
One of the more recent innovations are bass drum pedals made specifically for the cajon. Drummers are finding the cajon a great substitute for a bass drum on practice kits, so pedal manufacturers like Gibraltar are starting to develop ways for them to easily attach to a cajon.
Just like electronic drum sets are starting to flood the market to supplement acoustic drum sets, the electronic cajon is starting to make an appearance and the implications are very exciting.
While a fully electronic cajon shaped drum machine has been created before, Roland took the initiative in 2016 to create a hybrid between the classic acoustic cajon and electronic percussion sounds.
The EL Cajon EC-10 is a fully acoustic cajon that can be subtly supplemented with electronic percussion sounds. You can even specify which areas of the striking surface will trigger the sounds and how sensitive the surface is. The speaker on the front allows for the blend between the two, and output jacks on the back of the cajon allow for connection to an external speaker system.
Between the introduction of the electronic cajon and the growing popularity of using cajons as a kick drum on practice kits, I fully envision a future where large numbers of drummers across the world own and use a cajon on a daily basis. The electronic capabilities will also continue to evolve and future generations of cajons will allow artists more creative freedom when expressing themselves.
It’s only a matter of time before we start to see the cajon work its way into more styles of music and get into the hands of popular artists and teachers. The simple construction, great portability, and various modification capabilities make it a timeless classic in the percussion world.
Influential Cajon Players
There are too many inspiring cajon players to mention, but there are a few legends in the hand-percussion world that will stand the test of time as top influential players.
Alex Acuña (born as Alejandro Neciosup Acuña) was born in 1944 and is a prominent cajon player from Peru. He has played with some of the world’s top musicians including Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Carlos Santana to name a few. He has also worked at Berklee College of Music as an educator.
After his work with Elvis he joined the jazz-fusion group Weather Report, and then went on to become a successful session percussionist in California.
Alex has been voted Best Latin/Brazilian Percussionist by Modern Drummer’s Readers Poll and continues churning out new albums each year.
Rubem Dantas is perhaps one of the most famous cajon players in the world for his role as the percussionist for Paco de Lucía who introduced the cajon for flamenco and then to the rest of the world.
Born in 1954 in Brazil, Rubem was raised in a family that loved music. After learning piano, thanks to his mother, he decided to try his hand at percussion which he fell in love with. He soon became one of the most promising percussionists in the world.
In 1976 he came to Madrid and worked with such artists as Eddie Louis, Christian Escoudé, Dusty and Paco Serry.
Paco de Lucia eventually offered Rubem a part in his band, and he was the first to introduce the world of percussion to flamenco music. During one of the tours, Rubem discovered the traditional Peruvian cajon and decided to integrate it into a concert that same night during the band’s interpretation of “Solo quiero caminar”. From that day on the cajon has been a staple in flamenco music and it’s from there that popularity began to spread throughout other genres of music.
Nina Rodriguez, otherwise known by her nickname “Hands of Lightning”, is a famous cajon player and an endorser of Toca percussion cajons created by Kaman Music.
She’s a grammy-winning percussionist, musical performer, clinician and educator. Her extraordinary energy and dedication to the power of music, drumming and performance has shaped her career as a lead Facilitator with Drum Cafe and a celebrated independent musician.
Great Albums Featuring The Cajon
Chocolate (pronounced Choco-LAH-tay), one of Peru’s greatest percussionists, serves up an explosive performance of Afro-Peruvian drumming at its fiery best. This remarkable recording places the listener right in the center of congas, the cajon and other instruments for a spectacular experience of these sophisticated and masterfully performed rhythms.
In perhaps one of the most famous flamenco albums of all time, the legendary Rubem Dantas offers a stellar performance in Paco De Lucia’s album Entre Dos Aguas. It’s a stellar lineup and you’ll instantly be able to see why Rubem was able to make the cajon a staple in flamenco music forever.
El Chacombo is another great cajon-centric album created by Oscar Aviles and Arturo “Zambo” Cavero. It’s a Latin style album which originated in Peru, so it’s only fitting that it’s centered around the cajon which was born there.
Learning To Play
While learning an instrument on your own can be a great endeavour, some guidance in the beginning will go a long way in making sure you use proper technique and form.
Once you choose the perfect cajon, you’ll want to make sure to open yourself up to as much instructional material as you can so that you can grow quicker as a musician.
Learning the cajon is best shown visually or in person, so below I’ve gathered some of the top videos for helping you learn how to play the cajon.
Whether you are a drumming professional or have no experience playing drums whatsoever, the cajon is one of the most simple and accessible instruments ever created. It’s flexibility will allow you to play with almost any style of music ranging from folk to hip-hop, and it’s lightweight compact design allows for easy transportation and storage.
Today’s manufacturers are realizing the growing demand for the cajon and are creating various modifications and enhancements for every situation, so there is definitely something for everybody.
I’d recommend going down to your local music store and trying one out yourself to see what it’s all about. Who knows, you might find your next passion!