Cajon History

The cajón is the most popular and widely used Afro-Peruvian musical instrument for the last 200 years and is now used not only in Cuban and Peruvian music, but by folk musicians, Flamenco musicians, acoustic groups, street musicians (buskers) and increasingly, professional mainstream artists.

Origins of the Cajon Drum

African slaves in Peru are considered to be the source of the cajón drum. The Cajon Drum as a percussion instrument is common in musical performance throughout the Americas and is also known as the “Cuban Box Drum”.

The cajón has its origins in coastal Peru during the early 19th century where it is associated with several Afro-Peruvian musical styles.

There are two stories of the cajon’s origins:

  1. The cajon drum is a direct descendant of one of the many boxlike musical instruments from west and central Africa, particularly Angola, and later, the Antilles. These instruments were adapted by Peruvian slaves from the Spanish shipping crates at their disposal (The word cajon means ‘crate’ or ‘drawer’ in Spanish). In port cities like Matanzas, Cuba locals around the port used cod-fish shipping crates. In other areas, old used dresser drawers would be used as percussion instruments.
  2. Slaves simply used boxes as musical instruments to combat contemporary Spanish colonial bans on music in predominantly African areas. Cajones could easily be disguised as seats or stools and not some forbidden musical instrument.

Both scenarios probably illustrate the whole story – African origins and colonial suppression of slave music. The steel drum also has its origins in the shipping ports of the colonial Caribbean.

The original music which featured the Peruvian cajón was that of Tondero and Zamacueca (old versions of Marinera) dances.

Above, see a demonstration of phenomenal Afro-Peruvian cajón skills by “Polo”.
Above video: Masters of the Peruvian cajón – see an ensemble of cajón masters perform in a group of cajónistas.

Nowadays, the instrument is an integral part of Peruvian music and Cuban music.

The Cuban Box Drum

In Cuba, the cajon is known as a Cuban box drum which has its origins playing Rumba Yambu and now incorporated into many other styles. The bass box drum is large enough to sit on and is played with the palm, fist and fingers.

The middle drum is played with spoons and was originally a box from church candles. The solo drum started as a desk drawer (a cajón in Spanish) but has evolved into a specialized box made for this purpose. A more recent contribution to the cajón family is a tall, tapered box resembling a square ashiko. Another is the “Batajon ” an innovative cajón invented by Fat Congas of Santa Barbara, with two heads like a Batá drum. Now, there are even cajon bongo drums, congas and much more.

Introduction to Flamenco and the popularization of the Cajón

Paco de Lucia
While playing concerts in Peru, the Spanish Flamenco guitarist, Paco De Lucía was given a cajón by Caitro Soto (a top player) as a present. He liked the cajon so much that before leaving the country he bought a second cajón.

Later he introduced the cajón to flamenco music where it is a vital piece of modern flamenco performances made popular by Camaron de la Isla and Tomatito. (See video below to see and hear the cajon being used live by Tomatito in concert.)

In the above video you can see Tomatito playing “Por Bulerias” accompanied
by three ‘clappers’ to the left doing ‘palmas’ and a cajon player to the right.

Cajon and Contemporary Music

In recent years, the popularity of the cajon has exploded and for a percussion instrument, it is becoming as popular as the guitar for intimate performances, folk music, acoustic (unplugged) concerts and virtually every genre.

In the above video you can see Jake Shimabakuro playing his ukelele accompanied by a cajon player.
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