The cajón (Spanish, meaning “box” or “crate”) is a box drum idiophone most strongly associated with Afro-Peruvian music but also found elsewhere in Latin America and, in recent decades, beyond. Traditionally made from a re-purposed wooden crate, the cajón pictured and described here is an evolved form of the instrument, designed and manufactured with a global clientele in mind. Therefore, it is readily available for appropriation by professional percussionists worldwide as well as by musicians in its original Latin American settings. It has been, and continues to be used as a drum surrogate, and thus its description as a “box drum” is appropriate even though it is not a membranophone. In addition to coastal Peru, where populations of people of African descent are concentrated, the cajón or cajón-like instruments are found in El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere in the Caribbean under a variety of names.
The cajón pictured here is mass-produced by the Pearl company and uses some non-traditional materials. The instrument’s front side (as seen in gallery #1) serves as the main playing surface and appears to be made of a thin board of wood laminated with fiberglass. The left-side of the instrument as seen from this view, which serves as a secondary playing surface, is also made of wood, but its exterior face is covered first with a thin sheet of padding and then with cloth. The backside of the instrument (detail #1) is made from fiberglass and includes a shallow, semi-conical sound-hole. Through the sound-hole the interior side of the main playing surface can be seen. Attached to the upper-half of that board are several strands of metal snares (detail #2). The top surface of the box, on which the performer sits, is slightly padded for comfort.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
Normally, the player sits astride on top of the cajón (if a performer was included in gallery #1, he or she would be facing the camera). The primary playing surface is the instrument’s front face, which the performer strikes mostly with the palms and fingertips of both hands. On this particular model of cajón, the performer can also strike the padded right-side face (from the performer’s perspective). Three basic sound qualities can be produced: a bass tone by striking the bottom-half of the front face; a snare-drum-like quality by striking the upper edge of the front face (this brings into action the snares attached to the face’s backside), and a muted-bass sound is produced on the right-side (padded and cloth-covered) surface. A skilled performer can realize the basic rhythmic patterns associated with whatever musical style they are performing as though they were playing a partial drum set or another combination of membranophones and idiophones; a celebrated cajón player is heard in audio #1 performing rhythms associated with Afro-Peruvian music.
Tompkins (1998. p. 493) states that “The [cajón] probably developed during the 1800s and became popular shortly after 1850; before then, membranophones had more commonly been used. Today, the cajón provides rhythmic accompaniment to various forms of Afro-Peruvian and other coastal music.” Its association with Afro-Peruvian identity is so strong that “In 2001 Peru declared the cajón part of the nation’s cultural patrimony” (Haefer 2014a, p. 400). It does not appear that other Latin American box drums are necessarily directly derived from the Afro-Peruvian cajón. In Cuba, the cajón de rumba probably started out as wooden fish crates repurposed into box drums by Afro-Cuban dockworkers for use in various rumba styles in the 19th century. Congas eventually replaced them, but the cajón de rumba can still be heard in some region styles of rumba (“Cajón de rumba,” n.d.). In southern Mexico, the box drum cajón de tapeo is seen as being African-derived, but it is unclear precisely when those influences occurred and from where they were introduced. In this context, the rhythms sounded on the box drum correspond to those produced by dancers dancing the local fandango dance on wooden platforms (Haefer 2014b, p. 447). With the emergence of percussion manufacturers such as Pearl (Japan) and Latin Percussion (U.S.A.) in the second half of the 20th century and an increasing fascination in Latin American dance music around the world in general, the cajón (in evolved forms) eventually became available globally and integrated musically into an ever-widening range of musical styles.
“Cajón.” n.d. Wikipedia article accessed 1/19/18: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cajón
“Cajón de rumba.” n.d. Wikipedia article accessed 1/19/18: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cajón_de_rumba
Haefer, J. Richard. 2014a. “Box drum.” GDMI v.1: 400.
________. 2014b. “Cajón de tapeo [caja de tapeo, tapeador].” GDMI v.1: 447.
Marroquín, Salvador. 1998. "El Salvador." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2. South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. ed. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 706-720.
Nava L., E. Fernando. 1998. "Mixtec." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2. South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. ed. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 563-569.
Romero, Raúl R. 1994. “Black Music and Identity in Peru: Reconstruction and Revival of Afro-Peruvian Musical Traditions.” In Gerard H. Béhague, ed., Music and Black Ethnicity: The Caribbean and South America. University of Miami North-South Center, pp. 307-330.
Tompkins, William David. 1998. "Afro-Peruvian Traditions." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2. South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. ed. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 491-502.