To many musicians in the western world the cajon is still a new discovery. The quality of the mass produced instruments we find in our music shops nowadays sadly reflects a novelty element and a lack of understanding which remains prevalent among large manufacturers and amateur percussionists. Knowing the history and evolution of the cajon from the perspective of the musicians and artisan-luthiers who continue to innovate and expand it's boundaries can shed important light on how we perceive and approach the cajon as musicians, luthiers, perspective buyers or simply as lovers of music.
The Origins of the cajon date back to the 17th and 18th century when West Africans were being kidnapped and taken as slaves to the Spanish colonies in Latin America. The traditional music of the Africans was forbidden by their Spanish “owners” and of course, no African instruments were taken across the Atlantic. Music, however, is not something which can be suppressed that easily. Inevitably, songs were still sung and rhythms were still played, either by clapping or by drumming on any available surface that produced a half-decent sound.
There is much debate about where the first cajon came from. One thing we will never know for sure is where or when a person first tapped a rhythm on a box. One thing we do know is that by the mid 17th century, African slaves in coastal areas of Peru had been sitting and drumming on crates and boxes and had modified them to produce greater tonal variety and projection of sound. With a thin ply front attached loosely to four thicker sides and a sound hole in the back panel, the Cajon Peruano was born.
Around the same time, similar developments were taking place in Cuba. Slaves there had transformed fishing crates into an upright form of cajon which is played between the legs, facing upwards, like a djembe or congas. This became what we now know as Cajon Cubano. As the suppression of slave music became impossible, new genres appeared from the various fusions of musical styles and the development of new instruments. As the popularity of the cajon grew, so it's design evolved. Throughout the 19th century the Peruvian cajon spread through vast areas of Latin America and became a key part of countless musical styles across the continent.
The next significant phase in the evolution of the cajon began much more recently. In the 1970s flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas were experimenting with a fusion of flamenco and Latin American music, adding a much larger, fuller percussion sound to the traditional flamenco ensemble. Alongside congas, bongos, chimes and darbuka, this was the first instance of the cajon Peruano being used in flamenco. Almost as soon as the cajon arrived in Andalucía, it's popularity sky-rocketed and very quickly became a standard addition to flamenco groups. It was here that the first snare wires were added, producing a softer, sustained hiss or rattling sound, resulting in the first flamenco cajons. With a new musical context and different requirements from it's players, the last few decades have seen the flamenco cajon evolve in it's own right.
The addition of snares in the flamenco cajon inevitably resulted in comparisons between the cajon and the drum kit. With a foothold in Europe, the instrument expanded across the continent and found it's way into the mainstream as a quieter and more portable accompaniment to the acoustic guitar in rock, soul, folk and jazz bands to name a few. It has become a favourite among buskers and it's ever-increasing popularity has prompted large manufacturers to mass produce cajons and sell them worldwide, along with all kinds of new accessories, attachments and experimental modifications. The cajon is now finding it's way into countless new styles and genres and it's roll in such a large variety of musical contexts, accompanying such a huge range of other instruments shows us how versatile and how effective it can be.