The cajón is a box-shaped percussion instrument that originated in Perú. It’s played generally by hitting the front face with the palms, fingers, brushes, mallets, or sticks. Cajones are predominantly famous in Afro-Peruvian music but have also found their way into Flamenco. Cajón can also refer to a variety of boxed drums used in Latin-American music, such as the Cuban cajón de rumba and the Mexican cajón de tapeo.
The cajón is a musical instrument with a rich and tumultuous history. In Spanish, the term cajón signifies either “box” (caja) or drawer (cajón). According to legend, African slaves in Peru invented the first cajón around the 18th century. These slaves had a long history of drumming and percussion. Unfortunately, the Spanish colonial authorities saw musical gatherings as potential breeding grounds of unrest. Slave owners and police banned traditional African drum music in order to prevent such social gatherings.
The cajón is now famous among street performers as well as bands in venues of all sizes. The earthy tone of the instrument makes it a good accompaniment for guitarists and vocalists. It’s one of the most common instruments since it’s easy to travel with and durable.
How to Play It?
A cajón’s primary design is wonderfully simple. Several striking zones are available across the front of the wooden box. Playing near the box’s edge generates a high-pitch, sharp tone. This works great when used as a backbeat, much like a snare drum in a traditional drum set. The tone decreases in pitch and creates a heavier, more woody thud as you get closer to the center. This tone allows applications similar to those of a bass drum or toms.
A variety of scrape, pluck, muted and open strikes produce diverse sounds in this instrument. A cajón player can also slightly alter the instrument’s basic pitch by using different parts of the hand. Similarly, this can be achieved by applying pressure to bend the wood with one hand or foot while hitting the head with the other hand. The player sits on top of the box, leaning on it and smacking the front between his legs. For more sounds, the percussionists can hit the sides with the top of their hands and fingers.
Cosntruction and design of the cajón
Over the years, the original box design of this instrument underwent many changes. A thinner sheet of wood added to the striking side provided the snap “snare-like” hits. A soundhole, now usually found in the back of the box, provided better acoustic projection.
Perhaps the most recognizable advancement in the instrument’s design came when renowned Afro-Peruvian percussionist Caitro Soto met with Spanish Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. The latter was immediately fascinated with the instrument. Caitro gave his cajón to Paco, who brought it back to Spain. He then added a set of guitar strings against the rear of the playing surface, which gave the instrument a snare-like rattle when slapped. This helped the backbeat of the rhythm to cut through other instruments. The resulting Flamenco Cajón developed into the Snare Cajon which is now the most popular and widely used variation of the instrument worldwide.