THE ROLE OF THE CAJON

In recent years the cajon has founds it's way across the globe and taken on many roles in countless styles of music. Either as the only percussion instrument in a group, part of a larger percussion kit or a larger rhythm section, or simply as a smaller, more portable alternative to a drum kit, the cajon has proven it's adaptability and versatility to the world.

The first genre of music to truly claim the cajon as it's own came from the same humble, clandestine origins as the cajon itself. With the suppression of slave music in 17th and 18th century Peru, the music and especially the instruments belonging to African slaves were essentially illegal. The slaves needed instruments which could be easily hidden, and to this end the cajon – often a modified crate, box or stool – was a perfectly disguised drum on which traditional African rhythms could be played. As generations came and went, Afro Peruano music evolved into its own styles and genres. The Spanish colonisers had introduced the guitar to Peru, and as the suppression of African music became impossible, their rhythms, dances and songs were combined with the Spanish and European styles.

The most prominent genre to appear from this fusion was Criolla music, a rhythm-heavy style combining vocal harmonies and guitar accompaniment. The rhythms are played on cajon, checo (a hollowed and dried gourd, probably an Afro Peruano interpretation of the West African calabash) and lots of clapping. The Criolla dance style exhibits elements of European dance steps, the flamboyance and tap dancing techniques found in Flamenco and the fluidity and agility of West African sabar dance. In this music the cajon adds a deeper bass tone to the rhythm section and provides a platform for rhythmic improvisation.

 

Excerpt from a 1979 Peruvian TV show

 

Nicomedes Santa Cruz - “Mándame quitar la vida”

 

Throughout the 19th century the Cajon spread throughout the South America continent, finding it's way into various musical styles, often alongside traditional indigenous instruments and European instruments adopted by new styles and fusions. Across the Andes to the south of Peru in Bolivia and Chile the cajon found a home amongst instruments such as zampoñas (panpipes), queñas (Andean flute) and charangos. Here the instrument has been championed by groups like Illapu and Inti Illimani.

 

Chilean viruoso charango player Freddy Torrealba with Dick Miñano on cajon

 

To the north, the cajon made it's way into Colombian and Venezuelan music and became a standard addition to rhythm sections which already included congas, bombos and maracas in styles such as cumbia and joropo.

 

Colombian Joropo group Cimarron - “Quitapisares”

 

The cajon's first departure from Latin American music came in the 1970s when Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas was touring with Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía. Although in this particular project the cajon was an addition to a wider percussion kit, the introduction of the cajon to the world of Flamenco would prove a pivotal moment in the instrument's evolution. It was in Spain that the first snare wires were added, giving rise to what we now know as the flamenco cajon. Here the instrument provided a more solid percussive accompaniment than the traditional palmas (clapping) and the strumming and tapping of the guitarist. The complex rhythms and highly expressive use of dynamics provided the perfect platform for the newly modified cajon to flourish. Adding a deep bassy punch, the sharp slap and the soft, sizzling snares whilst imitating the rhythmic trickery of the flamenco dancer's feet and the guitarist's strumming and picking, the cajon was entering a whole new dimension of technical and sonic possibilities.

 

Flamenco guitarist Diego Del Morao and cajon player Israel “El Piraña” Suárez

 

It was this new sound and dynamic range, along with the simplicity of it's construction that quickly made the cajon a standard feature of flamenco groups. The growing popularity of the cajon coupled with a growing trend in flamenco fusion introduced the cajon to players from all kinds of musical and geographical backgrounds, particularly amongst rock, jazz, Arabic, African and Latin styles.

 

Flamenco Rock band Los Delinquentes and Tomasito - “Uno Más”

 

Flamenco Jazz guitarist Chema Vilchez - “Buleria”

 

Kurdish Flamenco fusion by Gani Mirzo - “La Pedrera”

 

Flamenco and Latin Jazz fusion by Diego Guerrero - “Malos Tiempos”

 

Experimentation with new styles and a foothold in Western Europe gave the cajon a new level of exposure which began to capture the imaginations of musicians all over the world. New fusions continue to emerge. Comparisons between the snare and bass of the flamenco cajon and the sound of the drum-kit became inevitable and kit drummers began using them as a more portable alternative to the kit in smaller, quieter environments. For this reason the cajon is also a favoured percussion instrument for buskers, acoustic groups, whatever their style.

 

London-based Acoustic Latin Soul group Elova - “Children and Poets”

 

Extract from an acoustic session by Welsh indie rock band Stereophonics - “Dakota”

 

International fusion project from Toulouse - “Ciudadano del mundo”

 

The role of the cajon in modern music is now as broad as the imagination. The surge in the popularity of the instrument has coincided with the digital age - a time of effortless international communication in which music can be shared and it's influence spread in an instant. With this level of access to a constantly expanding range of musical styles the cajon, with it's extreme adaptability, portability and potential for expression, is finding its place in an ever-growing spectrum of roles.

 

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