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September 30, 2020
A Brief History Of The Cajon (pt.2) the Cuba Connection
BY BRAD BOYNTON
Cuba is another country in which the cajon had a parallel development. Cajons are ubiquitous on the island, and yet haven’t reached the worldwide popularity of their Peruvian cousin. On a trip to Cuba, I asked musicologist Dr. Olavo Alen Rodriguez how drums had evolved in Cuba over the years. He explained that Afro-Cuban dock workers in port cities like Havana and Matanzas were repurposing old cod (bacalao) and candle crates coming from Spain, flipping them over and using them as drums. At the end of the day, he explained, dockworkers would retreat to the courtyards or solares of their public housing, where the crates evolved along with song and dance into three distinct styles of rumba: columbia, guaguanco, and yambu. Over time, the crates evolved in the hands of each local craftsman to ultimately emerge as a distinctly Cuban version of the cajon, mostly of the five-sided pyramidal variety, and in different sizes and voices.
In tracing the roots of the cajon in rumba, scholar David Penalosa says, “the side of a cabinet functioned in the role of the present-day tumba or salidor, while an overturned drawer served as the quinto.” As had occurred in other Caribbean and South American countries, Cuban President Gerardo Machado in 1925 banned “bodily contortions” and “drums of African nature” in public. The drums once again had to go underground, and it was here, behind the walls of the solares, where the cajon not only found its voice, but could be blended in with everyday home furnishings so as not to be detected by authorities.
Cuban cajons are usually held in the lap; are pitched high (quinto), medium (salidor or tres dos), or low (tumba), with the sit-down bajo being the only one resembling its Peruvian cousin. Moreover, the pitch and melody in rumba are far more important than just a bass note. Each drummer plays a drum that has a distinct role in the overall sound. Those distinct roles and pitches are what allow them to intermix, side by side, with congas when playing rumba.
Another everyday box drum you’ll find in Cuba is the rectangular cata (gua-gua, cajita china), a cross between a box drum and a giant woodblock that is played with sticks and closely synced with the clave. Although this seemed to have happened independently of the Peruvian tradition, it originated out of the same need to use what was available while simultaneously adapting the box drums as a tool to subvert the ban on slaves owning or playing drums.
To be continued.........
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