What has six sides and takes a beating?
The answer is the flamenco cajon, or flamenco box, undoubtedly one of the most popular percussion instruments in both the studio and on the streets today, but it wasn't always so. A long time ago, probably just after the inventions of fire and the wheel, came the box. After all, since the dawn of time, we have needed to transport, store, and organize our belongings. And I'm sure that, from those early days, rhythmically inclined people turned them over and started beating them.
The word "cajón" is literally Spanish for box (cajón, caja, even coffin), and the flamenco cajon as a drum appears in many cultures, across various continents and over generations. The enduring traditions that have influenced the development of our music and our instruments generally trace back to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, including Peru, Cuba, and other Caribbean nations.
Born Out of Necessity
In the 18th century, drums throughout the region were banned because they threatened those in power by being used in protests and revolts. Soon, Peruvian port cities like Lima saw a great number of boxes, drawers, and wardrobe sides being used as instruments by slaves. Though its birth may have been decades earlier, one of the first images of a cajon accompanying popular music in Peru was in a drawing by the Peruvian artist Ignacio Merino dating back to 1841.
The Peruvian cajon in its purest form is a six-sided instrument, with a sound hole cut in the back panel. The front panel, or tapa, is made of thin wood for resonance, leaving the other five sides to provide structure. The sound is dry, the fundamental tone is bass, and its primary function is as a rhythm accompaniment instrument. Traditionally, it had no need for the bells and whistles, buzzes and traps that have been added over the years.
Peru is also home to one of the coolest instruments on the planet, the cajita (small box), which 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 remains a major innovator and exporter of cajons, which have become popular worldwide, partly thanks to one of its native sons, the great percussionist Alex Acuña.
Cuba is another country where the cajon had a parallel development. Cajons are ubiquitous on the island, yet have not reached the global popularity of their Peruvian cousin.
Cuban cajons are generally held in the lap; they have a high tone (quinto), medium (salidor or tres dos), or low (tumba), with the low seated one being the only one resembling its Peruvian cousin. Additionally, the tone and melody of the rumba are much more important than a bass note. Each drummer plays a drum that has a distinct role in the overall sound. These distinct roles and tones are what allow them to intermingle, 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 wood block played with sticks and closely synchronized with the clave. Although this seemed to have happened independently of the Peruvian tradition, it originated from the same necessity to use what was available while adapting box drums as a tool to subvert the ban on slaves owning or playing drums.
Migration of the Cajon to Spain
We often talk about Cuban, Peruvian, and flamenco cajons as if they evolved in the same place at the same time. But the flamenco cajon is a much more recent development. History tells us that Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas discovered the cajon while on tour in Peru in the 1970s. Cajon composer and master Caitro Soto gave them a cajon to take back to Spain, and the rest is history. There, it was quickly assimilated into flamenco and adapted to Spanish musical sensibilities with the addition of guitar strings, bells, and other jingles mounted inside to give more depth to the instrument. Before the 1970s, percussion instruments in flamenco were largely just hands (palmeros) and feet (bailaores).
So, when we refer to the flamenco cajon in the industry, it's the one with guitar strings and loose corners that allow 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 at both top corners that are designed for the percussionist to loosen or tighten, in the same way a drummer adjusts the snares of a snare drum to have a full spectrum of sounds, from clean and dry to completely dirty. This is what we commonly call "Tuning a cajon." If you haven't loosened the top screws of your cajon, try it!
African Connection of the Box
Spain, Cuba, and Peru are just some of the ancestors of today's cajon. In researching for this article, I came across a square Lakota 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. Although I doubt that a drum from the Ming Dynasty is related to the contemporary cajon, we have to wonder if there could be an African connection. The verdict of an African connection with the cajon and other box drums is definitive, but perhaps not in the way one might expect. Most articles on the subject are scarce and only say that African slaves brought it to the New World. But what does that mean? Did they bring drums? Did they have memories of drums back home that they then made in the colonies as slaves? Did they not have drums that resembled those back home and therefore improvised cod boxes and drawers to create something new?
The evolution definitely started in Africa, traveled to the Americas, and returned to Africa in a completely different form. It's the difference between logs and wood. Drums in Africa are generally carved from logs with chisels; whereas carpenters with saws make cajons from wood, hand planes, glue, and clamps. Even today, where square drums are found in African countries like Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, and Ghana, for example, they tend to be made in urban centers by carpenters rather than in more rural areas by carvers, two completely different professions.
Current Percussion Cajons
Today, the cajon is one of the world's most popular, accessible, and visible drums. Each year there are new versions (pocket cajons, bongo cajons, foldable cajons, turbo cajons, electronic cajons), as well as accessories that drive innovation and the ways this drum is played, for example, cajon brushes, pedals, seats, ports, microphone pickups, even sound effects that can be attached to the cajon. Cajons are no longer just made of plywood joined in a box, but now include fiberglass and acrylic, as well as a modern version built with wooden staves.
So, how did the cajon emerge as one of the fastest-growing percussion instruments? Musicians across the spectrum love the cajon because it blends well with acoustic music, doesn't have fragile animal skins, and doubles as a drummer's throne. Compared to the sophistication of a drum set, a cast B20 bronze cymbal, or a stave-built conga, the cajon is accessible to musicians, craftsmen, and their wallets alike. Perhaps to the chagrin of trained drummers, the cajon doesn't require years of lessons or precise hand technique to play, and this feature has opened it up to a whole world of students and recreational drummers. It's a drum for everyone, and now it's official: it's hip to be square!