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October 06, 2020
Spain, Cuba, and Peru are just some of the forebears to today’s cajon. In researching for this article, I came across a Lakota square drum; ancient Egyptian and Chinese square drums; the Jamaican rumba box (marimbula), which is like a giant kalimba; as well as an entire genre of square drums from Central and West Africa. Though I have doubts that a drum from the Ming Dynasty is related to the contemporary cajon, we do have to ask ourselves if it’s possible that there is an African connection. The verdict of an African connection to the cajon and other box drums is definitive, but maybe not in the way you might expect. Most articles on the subject are scant and just say that African slaves brought it to the New World. But what does that mean? Did they bring drums with them? Did they have memories of drums back home, which they in turn made in the colonies as slaves? Did they not have any drums resembling those back home, and so improvised cod crates and drawers to create something new?
The evolution definitely began in Africa, traveled to the Americas, and returned to Africa in an entirely different form. It’s the difference between logs and lumber. Drums in Africa are generally carved from logs with chisels; while carpenters wielding saws make cajons using lumber, hand planes, glue, and clamps. Even today, where you find square drums in African countries such as Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, and Ghana, for example, they tend to be made in urban centers by carpenters rather than in the more rural areas by carvers — two entirely different professions.
But do they spring from the same well? I put that question out to three West African drummers who play the rectangular tamali (kolomashie), siko, and gome drums (the gome is a big square box drum covered one side with goat or antelope skin and played with hands and feet). I got three different answers. One said that African slaves were sent by the Portuguese to their territories to construct buildings, and returned with the carpentry skills to make box drums. That would date it back to the 15th Century, since the Portuguese were among the first to colonize West Africa. Another said it was the Kru (Liberian) sailors who were not only free during much of the slave trade, but who gained knowledge of rectangular drums while sailing back and forth on slave ships to the Americas. A third repeated something his grandfather had told him: that during the 18th to early 19th Centuries, box drums were introduced to the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) by repatriating slaves who passed through West Africa on their way back to Cameroon. Some songs accompanying the gome drum tell those stories. But all three acknowledged that while their box drums had natural skins for a playing surface, the first completely wooden cajons seem to have come from South America. When it comes to drums and drumming, the roads usually point back to Africa. But in this case, the roads all lead to the Americas where the cajon developed and, like a conversation, came back to Africa, where it has undergone its own evolution.
To be continued.........
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