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September 23, 2020
A Brief History Of The Cajon (Pt. 1)
BY BRAD BOYNTON
What has six sides and takes a beating? The answer is the cajon, one of the most popular percussion instruments in the studio and on the street. A long time ago, probably right after the inventions of fire and the wheel, came the box. After all, since the beginning of time we’ve needed to carry, store, and organize our belongings. And I’m sure that since those early days, rhythmically inclined individuals have flipped them over and banged on them. I know I did as a kid, and my dad’s Amway sample-box didn’t last long after I discovered how great it sounded with a pair of drumsticks.
The word cajon is literally Spanish for box (drawer, crate, even coffin), and the cajon as a drum shows up in many cultures, on several continents, and over generations of time. The enduring traditions that have influenced our music and instrument development can generally be traced back to Spanish colonies in the Americas, including Peru, Cuba, and other Caribbean nations.
BORN OF NECESSITY
In the 18th Century, drums across the region were banned because they threatened those in power. Soon, Peruvian port cities such as Lima saw an abundance of crates, drawers, and sides of wardrobes used as instruments by slaves. Though its birth could have been decades before, one of the first images of a cajon accompanying popular music in Peru was in a drawing by Peruvian artist Ignacio Merino dating from 1841.
The Peruvian cajon in its purist form is a six-sided instrument, with a sound hole cut into the back panel. The front panel, or tapa, is made from thin wood for resonance, leaving the other five sides to provide the structure. The sound is dry, the root tone is bass, and its primary role is as an accompaniment instrument. It traditionally didn’t have or need the bells and whistles, buzzes and snares that have been added to it over the years.
Peru is also home to one of the coolest instruments on the planet, the cajita (tiny box), which is 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 is still a major innovator and exporter of cajons, which have become popular worldwide thanks in part to one of its native sons, percussion great Alex Acuña.
To be continued.........
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