While there are many stories passed around about the early history of the cajon, nobody is really sure exactly how the instrument got it’s origins. What we do know is that sometime in the 16th century, African slaves in Peru and Cuba began using any box-like instruments they could scavenge to play their traditional rhythms.
During the early colonial times slave owners banned drums, but that didn’t stop the Africans from playing music. They came from an intensely rhythmic culture and soon started finding ways around their master’s orders. These slaves would use overturned drawers, shipping crates and simple wooden boxes to recreate the sounds of the traditional African instruments. From these origins came the claves and the cajon, among others.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the cajon developed a big role in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Peruvian music. In one type of cuban dance music, a muscician would play the cajon while another would sing and play the claves in a two bar rhythm. People would clap their hands and dance to this beat, which became known as the rumba, an essential part of Afro-Cuban culture.
From these origins, three different types of cajon developed. The cajon flamenco, the cajon peruano and the cajon cubano.
The Cajon Peruano
As the name suggests, these cajons come from Peru. The player sits on top of this type of cajon and they do not have internal snares. They have a tone similar to the congas and are probably the oldest of the cajon family of instruments. Alex Acuña is a well known cajon player from Peru and deserves much of the credit for popularizing the instrument.
The Cajon Flamenco
The cajons you see most often in popular music today are flamenco cajons. They have either strings or snares pressed against the front plate that produce a sizzle effect when played. In the 1970′s, the cajon was introduced to flamenco music by Paco de Lucia and his percussionist Ruben Dantas. The snare sound works well to replicate the traditional hand-claps and footwork of flamenco music. Quickly, musicians in other genera realized that the flamenco cajon sounds a lot like a modern drumset. It was this sound that gave the cajon the popularity it has today.
The Cuban cajon is much less popular today than the other two styles. They are still produced by many major companies though. The Cuban cajon is held between the legs and played like a djembe or conga.
Since about 2005, the use of cajon drums has really grown and is steadily increasing. Many of the big name stores now carry several brands of cajon. There has been no better time to learn to play the cajon!
By Mike Quain
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