For those not yet privy to its sound and application, I thought I’d introduce a sweet little acoustic percussion instrument known as the cajón. While playing percussion and guitar with some friends this past weekend, another friend of mine brought one of these curiously simple devices over and it added a very nice complimentary snare sound to the lower, earthier tones of the djembe and ringing sounds of the bongos.
The brand of the box my friend brought over was a Meinl, though there are many brands to choose from and I don’t suspect building one should be terribly difficult (my friend seemed for whatever reason hesitant to reveal the price he paid, but the Meinl brand drum is listed anywhere from roughly $100 – $350, on Musiciansfriend.com). Essentially, the instrument is little more than a box of wood with a snare-wire accessory secured to the inside of the front sheet of wood to add a drum kit-like effect when struck.
The top, back, bottom and sides of the instrument are made out of what appeared to be ¾ in. plywood with a much thinner sheet of wood acting as the instrument’s front, where it is slapped, allowing for the crisp sound the drum provides. In the back, a hole is cut to allow escape from the resonating chamber, similar to an acoustic guitar. Using a knob on the right side of the box, the snare effect can be heightened or reduced, depending on your preference; muting it entirely or giving it great voice depending on how tightly you secure it in place. The top corner of the front sheet – right or left, depending on user choice – allows for its screws to be loosened somewhat to adjust the instrument’s crash tone when slapped. The approach of playing this instrument is quite similar to that used on any other hand drum, simply with a different set of sounds available.
Though the exact story of this instrument’s creation seems to be debated somewhat, it appears to be agreed upon the instrument was created by African slaves to the Spanish during the 19th century. The instrument was likely made out of shipping crates, drawers or similar items at the time and it is unclear whether the instrument had earlier ancestors prior to their Latin American appearance, or whether the simple designs came about to allow a musical voice to a group of people prohibited from its expression. The cajón’s unremarkable design may have allowed slaves to keep them without knowledge of their purpose being betrayed to the slave owners who deemed instruments contraband. The Spanish word “cajón” even translates to “drawer” in English, adding to the drum’s ambiguity.
Included below is a brief video explaining the design of the Meinl brand product, and there is a brief demonstration of technique. This instrument, whatever brand or homemade edition it may be, is a wonderful addition to any drum or jam circle. I’ll soon try to make one myself, as I simply can’t not have one of these after playing one. If you plan on picking one up yourself and giving it a go, you’ll likely feel the same. If anyone has any more information on this drum or other quirky percussion instruments worthy of notice, please comment!