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The Cajon Drum: A Journey Through Time

Updated on November 8, 2013

Kopf Percussion S-Series Snare Cajon

The History Of The Cajon

The cajon drum is one of the most classic Afro-Peruvian percussion instruments. Originating from Peru around the early nineteenth century, it is believed to have been developed by African slaves living beneath the Spanish colonists. The absolute origin, however, is unknown. Some historians believe that the cajon drum might be the descendant of traditional drums coming out of Africa. Likewise, it is harder to determine the origin of this instrument as it is classically made out of leftover wood such as crates, boxes, and furniture. Traditionally it is made out of plywood.

This drum acts double as an instrument and as a piece of furniture. To play it, the user sits on top of it, legs spread and leaning forward. For optimal use, he or she will tip the instrument backwards to get a good timbre. The cajon is played by slapping the front side of the wood nestled between the user’s legs. Adjustments can be made, such as tapping on the sides or beating down below. Nowadays it is common to attach feet to the cajon and an occasional mat for comfort.

Cajon Notables

While the cajon drum is seen and heard all around the world, it is most commonly found in its home bases of former Spanish slave colonies, particularly Cuba and Peru. It has become so standard in these areas, that Peru declared it the National Patrimony in the early twenty-first century, two hundred years after the instrument is believed to have been originally created. It can be heard in local festivals and on national recordings.

One of the most famous modern cajon drum players is Caitro Soto. For most of the twentieth century Caitro Soto was an important Afro-Peruvian folk figure who was considered a master of the cajon. Legend has it that he gifted the percussion instrument to Spanish musician Paco de Lucia, which led to the cajon’s prominence in flamenco music.

Today's Cajon

Variations of the traditional cajon exists in Mexico and in Cuba. In southern Mexico it is known as “cajon de tapeo,” and is played by striking the top of the drum instead of the front. In Cuba it is known as “cajon de rumba.” This variation bears a striking similarity to the normal cajon, but instead of resting on the ground it rests on the player’s feet. Like the cajon of Peru being made with leftover crates and furniture, the cajon de rumba was historically fashioned out of imported cod boxes.

Today the cajon is both a percussion instrument and so much more. You can find it as is in local festivals, and you can find it with extra bells and whistles – that is, attached guitar strings, piano strings, and even bass pedals – for some extra fun. The wonderful thing about the cajon drum, besides its lively history, is how adaptable it is to the imagination. Like the Afro-Peruvians who created it hundreds of years ago, this wonderful percussion instrument has both made history and evolved in a multitude of ways that has contributed to Latin American culture unlike almost any other instrument.

Jimmy Lopez uses a cajon in the center of his percussion rig.
Jimmy Lopez uses a cajon in the center of his percussion rig.
Jimmy Lopez playing his Kopf Cajon  in a live performance in NYC.
Jimmy Lopez playing his Kopf Cajon in a live performance in NYC.
Scotty Giles from the Australian Dr Piffle and the Burlap Band. Scotty plays a Kopf S-Series Cajon
Scotty Giles from the Australian Dr Piffle and the Burlap Band. Scotty plays a Kopf S-Series Cajon

Playing A Cajon

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