What is a Cajon Drum?

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you sometimes find yourself beating your hands or tapping your fingers along with a favorite song? Well, you don't need fancy equipment to play the drums! In this lesson, learn about the history of the cajon drum.

A Simple Structure

A cajon drum is a simple rectangular box drum made of wood. It has six sides, with one side of thin plywood. The player sits on top of it and beats their hands against the plywood surface, which is called the tappa. A circular hole cut in the back of the drum lets the sound escape.

You don't need a complicated set up with drum stands, seats, electric wires and other attachments. You don't even need drumsticks. Simply sit on the top of the drum and play. Hitting it with the open palm or side of hand or playing on its edge creates different sound effects. A cajon doesn't even have to be expensive to own, and many sites on the internet give you instructions for how to make a cajon for yourself.

Contemporary musician playing a cajon
Contemporary musician playing a cajon

Cajon History

The word 'cajon' is Spanish, meaning box or drawer. But this simple percussion instrument actually reflects a complex history, one tangled with European colonialism and slavery in South America. Its story begins in the 16th century. The cajon was invented in Peru by slaves from West Africa, people who had rich traditions involving music, storytelling and drumming. When Spanish traders forced them into slavery in Peru to do dangerous work of silver and gold mining, they forbid them from playing drums. But the slaves improvised and used available materials, in this case cast off shipping crates. Defying their masters, they converted the crates into drums. It allowed them to keep their culture alive despite living thousands of miles from their homeland.

Cajon in Different Styles of Music

By the 1850s, the cajon's use spread to Cuba, another Spanish colony. In the early 1900s, practitioners of the Santeria religion, which developed in Cuba from a mix of Catholic and Afro-Caribbean faiths, increasingly used the cajon in their ceremonies. And the use of this simple drum continued to spread throughout the world. As it became more popular, percussionists adapted it and made it more complex, sometimes adding internal strings attached vertically on the top and bottom of the box's interior to give it more snare-like effects. In the 1970s, Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia popularized the cajon for use in Flamenco music, where it could effectively replicate sounds of clapping and foot tapping, and today it's a standard instrument in the genre.

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