Cajón is the symbolic instrument of the black Peruvian community. Like many other South American percussions, it’s a substitute for African drums, usually prohibited to the slaves brought to the New World.
The name describes what it is: a big box. It is said that the first cajones were the boxes of the fruit pickers of the coast region. Also in Cuba, where the cajón exists and is played in certain styles of Rumba: the legend has it that fish crates were played as percussions.
Since then, the Cajón has been improved, until it got a conventional shape and construction criteria. It usually comes as a wooden rectangle about twenty inches tall and twelve inches in depth and width. The front face (tapa) and the back face are different from the sides; the tapa is much thinner than the rest and is the playing surface, while the back has a hole, for sound projection.
The feature that differentiates the various types of cajón, is the snare mechanism.
In the Flamenco version, the tone is usually enriched by placing metallic objects inside, touching the front side. Guitar strings, rattles, drum snares and similar stuff serves this purpose.
In the Peruvian and Cuban traditional cajones, these devices are omitted, thus obtaining a cleaner sound, closer to a skin drum. With the snares the cajón reminds of a snare drum.
Examples of this sound can be heard on the recordings by Susana Baca, a contemporary Peruvian singer, and virtually in every record made by Afroperuvian artists.
Check the compilation The Soul Of Black Peru, produced by David Byrne. Some of those percussionists are really famous, names like Julio “Chocolate” Algendones, Juan “Cotito” Medrano, Eusebio “Pititi” Sirio and Caitro Soto.
The last mentioned, is especially regarded for an anecdote that made the Cajón very popular in Spain.
It appears to have been him who introduced the Cajón to Paco De Lucia, while on tour in South America in the late seventies.
Paco got two instruments and gave them to his Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas and to Manuel Soler, dancer from Sevilla.
It was an instant success: Flamenco music adopted immediatly the cajón, and since then a great number of specialists came under the spotlight; people like Antonio Carmona, Ramón Porrina, Luki Losada, Piraña, Paquito González and many more.
The Cuban cajòn has its own history, very much linked to that of a musician and handcrafter, named Pancho Quinto.
He started making cajones back in the ‘50s, and contributed to the creation of a standard for cajones shapes: usually they come in two shapes, one is rectangular (but wider than the Peruvian and Flamenco), and the other has a cut-pyramid fashion.
They are usually played together, one rectangular and two pyramids, or with congas.
Musically, Pancho Quinto is regarded as one of the originators of the “Guarapachangueo” style of Rumba, as well as Irian Lopez and Los Chinitos.
Master percussionist Miguel ”Angà” Dìaz , one of the best Cuban percussionists of all times, was also a frequent user of the cajòn, especially in his work with pianist Omar Sosa.
USE OF THE CAJÓN DRUM
The Cajón is played sitting on top of it, striking the front face. On the top side, the sound is sharp and high, while the centre gives a bass tone.
Mixing these different sounds with a wise dynamic playing gives a very effective and versatile way to play many styles of music.
Apart from its natural place, it can be used in virtually any acoustic setting, and with an adequate amplification, it suits even electronic music like Drum’n’bass. The reminiscence of a drumkit is quite impressive, and is also a lot lighter to carry around with a weight of five lbs.!
It can be used by Conga and Darbouka players, as well as drummers, replacing the stool and enlarging the sound range of multi percussionist.
In recent times we have seen an increasing popularity of the Cajón, it is featured in many non-traditional musical contexts, and it’s bound to become one of the most popular percussion instruments world wide.