TYPES OF CAJON
Throughout it's history, the simple and often improvised construction of early cajons has not only endured in it's own right, but has also served as a basic concept - a platform for development which has evolved into a diverse range of percussion instruments. The primary sources for this evolution and expansion can be found in two types of cajon which are still very popular today. These are the Peruvian cajon and the Cuban cajon. These instruments appeared separately and evolved independently of each other. They are the ancestors of all other cajons.
When most people visualise a cajon they see a rectangular box which the percussionist sits on top of. This kind of cajon began it's story in coastal regions of Peru, where African slaves and their descendants looked for simple and improvised alternatives to the drums of West Africa, which could also be disguised and hidden from their “masters”. As boxes, drawers and crates produced a good sound they were used more and more extensively and drummers began refining the sound – looking for a bright slap around the edges and a deep, bassy tone in the middle. By the 1800s the cajon and Criolla music were hugely popular across Peru, particularly in Lima. The Peruvian cajon we know today is based on the same principles as the converted furniture and the first primitive box drums of the clandestine slave musicians. Now the construction is far stronger and the sound is a lot more refined. Typically a Peruvian cajon is made of solid hardwood, glued together with a circular sound-hole in the middle of the back panel. The front is made from thinner, laminated wood and is fixed in place and tuned with screws. The sound is deep and resonant in the middle with a short, sharp and quick attack in the top corners. The sides are often used as well and give a higher resonant tone. This sound is well suited to Criolla and other traditional Afro-Peruvian styles, but can also be used as an expressive and dynamic addition to all kinds of music.
Peruvian Cajon with Miguel and José Ballumbrosio
The circumstances in which the Cuban cajon appeared were virtually identical to those in which the Peruvian cajon was created. Slaves taken from West Africa by Spanish colonisers to Cuba were not allowed music or instruments of their own and the cajon started life as a clandestine, improvised alternative to African drums like djembes and sabars. Fashioned out of old barrels and fishing crates, the first cajons in Cuba were played more like a djembe – between the knees with the playing surface facing upwards. As the repression of Afro-Cuban music became impossible and the design of the cajon became more formalised, the instrument became very popular, played either alone, with other cajons or as part of a larger percussion kit, usually adding a different timbre to a set of congas. The Cuban cajon as we know it now is typically made of four long wooden sides which flare out towards the thinner, square playing surface at the top. The bottom is left open and acts as a sound-hole. The sound is far more resonant than that of it's Peruvian cousin and much more like a conga. The middle is deep and bassy with a defined pitch and the edges are very bright and resonant, giving a separate and higher note than the centre. The tone is a bit deader than a conga's and the cajon has a different, more 'woody' (unsurprisingly!) timbre. Like congas, Cuban cajons are built in different sizes to give different tones and are commonly referred to as (from smallest to largest) quinto, conga and tumba, with a couple of rarer smaller sizes – ricardo and requinto – and the biggest of all – the supertumba. The playing technique is very similar to that of a djembe when played alone, and almost identical to the congas when played with other drums.
Cuban Cajon with Congas, Claves and Kata by El Duo Peligroso
As the Peruvian and Cuban cajons evolved modifications and adjustments were made, many of them ultimately leading to the creation of new kinds of cajons. The most famous of these is unquestionably the Flamenco cajon. Also known as the snare cajon, it was this instrument that sparked the recent explosion in the cajon's international acclaim and it's introduction to the mainstream. Essentially a Peruvian cajon with snare wires, the Flamenco cajon is now by far the most popular and most common variety. The Flamenco cajon's evolution began in the 1970s when Peruvian percussionist Caitro Soto gave a Peruvian cajon to Rubem Dantas, a Brazilian percussionist who was touring with flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia at the time. From this introduction to flamenco, the cajon took on a new role and flamenco players began adding guitar strings behind the playing surface to act as snare wires. This produced a sort of hiss or rattle which softened the overall sound of the instrument. Over the last few decades the design of Flamenco cajon has been refined and modified – particularly in the snare department – providing more controlled and adjustable snare response. They are usually made of plywood as it has a very good strength-to-weight ratio and is much cheaper and more readily available in Europe than the tropical hardwoods of Peru. As well as the addition of snare wires and their tuning mechanisms, Flamenco cajons have also received other modifications in recent years, such as Pepote's rounded corners, thumb grooves and interior sound diffusers. Flamenco cajons tend to have a less resonant, yet livelier and more dynamic sound than their Peruvian ancestors which suits a more subtle, softer approach to playing. The broad, expressive dynamic range of flamenco music is perfectly reflected in the responsive nature of the Flamenco cajon. It is this dynamic range and similarity in sound to the snare and bass of the drum kit which have captured the imagination of a global audience in recent years.
Flamenco Cajon – Buleria by Ale Waltrapa
The Batajón or Bata cajon is another Cuban invention which first appeared around 1900. The Bata is a double-headed drum played on it's side, across the percussionist's lap. Originally from Nigeria, the Bata is played extensively in Cuba and was traditionally used in religious ceremonies. The Bata cajon is essentially a square or octagonal Bata with wooden heads which was made by Afro-Cubans as a cheaper alternative to the original, animal skin drum. Afro-Cubans were banned from many of the religious ceremonies in which the original Bata was used, and for some it was deemed “immoral” to sell a sacred instrument to a black person. As the cajon was used far more widely in secular music the Bata cajon was seen primarily as a secular instrument and, viewed through this racist paradigm, was considered “less of problem” in the hands of black musicians. Much like the Cuban 'conga-style' cajon, the Bata cajon is built in different sizes to give different pitches. The sound is slightly dryer than it's calf-skin cousin and has a shorter, crisper and brighter resonance.
Bata Cajon trio - “Eleguá”
Bongo cajons are a relatively modern invention and are constructed in one of two common ways. The first is like a pair of very small Cuban cajons attached to each other, usually with square, octagonal or circular wooden shells and thinner wooden playing surface – essentially a pair of bongos made entirely out of wood. The other, simpler common construction method consists of a rectangular or trapezium-shaped wooden playing surface with four sides and a panel which divides the box into two different-sized areas, each with their own pitch.
Bongo Cajon demonstration
The Boombakini is the brainchild of Dominican percussionist and inventor Fellé Vega. A very recent invention, the Boombakini is a long, wooden percussion instrument which rests across the players lap. The curved playing surface provides four main sounds – two resonant pitches in the flatter parts of the surface and two deader, dryer sounds in the rounder parts of the top. There are various subtleties and nuances between the main playing areas particularly around the edges.
Boombakini demonstration by inventor and percussionist Fellé Vega
Since the cajon's introduction to the mainstream many new variations and additions to the more traditional design concepts have been added, resulting in different approaches to cajon production and playing. While many of these modifications and adaptations are little more than gimmicks on poor quality instruments, some are well developed innovations with unique new uses.
- Switchable Cajon
Switchable cajons are Flamenco or snare cajons with built-in mechanisms which allow you to detatch or mute the snares like on a snare drum, effectively switching the instrument between a Flamenco cajon and a Peruvian cajon. Many builders and manufacturers have attempted this two-in-one approach with varying degrees of success. A lot of switchable cajons do work and work well, albeit if the “Flamenco” sound doesn't quite stand up to that of a purpose-built Flamenco cajon – and likewise with its “Peruano” sound, often resulting in something of a 'jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none' type outcome. Some of these instruments have different degrees of adjustment and allow for more detailed control over how much snare response (if any) the cajon has. A problem with many switchable cajons is having intrusive knobs and levers poking out of the instrument in a way which can either compromise the sound or make the cajon awkward or uncomfortable to play, although some more innovative artisan-builders have managed to overcome some of these issues with more subtle and well-placed mechanisms.
- Slap-Top Cajon
Slap-top cajons are snare cajons which face upwards with the sound-box hanging between the percussionist's knees. I'm not entirely sure what the advantage of “giving up your seat” for a slap-top cajon is (unless you have serious back problems), especially considering that the vast majority of those available are of a pretty poor quality. There's a very strong chance that this idea was conceived through a lens of corporate opportunism – relying entirely on the instrument's novelty value and the assumption that their customers knew nothing about cajons or how to play them. If you can sit on a normal cajon properly and know any of the most basic techniques, you will find any playing surfaces just as accessible as those of a slap-top cajon. The only videos of slap-top cajons on the internet are demonstrations – no actual musicians doing actual performances of actual music. Why? Because real percussionists play real cajons.
- Octocajon Cajon
Octacajons, like switchable cajons, bridge a gap between two of the traditional cajon types. Octacajons are similar to Cuban cajons but with adjustable snare wires like a Flamenco cajon. The range of sounds is very broad and has a far more unique character than any other hybrid cajon. Being a large, upright drum like a conga, octacajons are capable of producing a wide range of pitches and resonances, from very deep bass tones to warm and bright higher notes around the edges. Also the shape and playing position lend the instrument naturally to conga playing techniques and all the subtle dynamics, dryer, muted strokes and open and resonant tones that come with them. Add to this the rattle and buzz of loose wires or the soft hiss of tighter snares and the result is a highly dynamic and versatile instrument which is incredibly well suited to Latin styles.
- Bass Cajon
Bass cajons are essentially just big cajons which produce a lower, deeper tone. Any type of cajon can have a bass equivalent – they are just bigger than their normal counterparts. To the Cuban cajon, which comes in a variety of sizes, it is the Tumba and Supertumba which provide the bass end of the spectrum – the same applies to Bata cajons and Octacajons.
Pepote Tumba Cajon
For the Peruvian and Flamenco style instruments, all you need is a bigger box. As Peruvian cajons began life as improvised instruments they were, by their nature, different shapes and sizes. It wasn't until the design of the purpose-built cajon became more refined and the size more standardised that a distinction between the “normal” sized cajons and their bigger, bassier brothers was made. Generally wider, deeper and often shorter than most cajons, the bigger box produces a much lower pitch.
Peruvian Bass Cajon in action
The Bass Flamenco cajon is made using exactly the same principle. Often wider, deeper and shorter they often include more modern modifications like slanted playing surfaces and separated open compartments at the bottom of the cajon which project sound like a bass-reflex speaker.
Pepote Maxi Flamenco Bass Cajon
Nowadays many custom-built bass cajons are designed to be played differently – some are built as substitutes to kick drums and are played primarily with a pedal. Others are so large that the playing surface is moved to the top and the percussionist sits behind the instrument.
A massive cajon
By Tom McAllister