The Cajon - Reimagining The Box Drum
By Mike Fitch |
The cajon has become an immensely popular instrument in recent years. From its beginnings decades ago with the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Peru, this box drum has found a home on modern stages and in recording studios. The instrument's new-found popularity is largely due to its versatility, with the ability to mimic everything from a Latin percussion set-up to a full drum kit. The cajon's small footprint is great for fitting onto tight stages.
The box drum is great for drummers, players of other instruments, or amateurs or new musicians who want a beginning percussion instrument that's easy to play yet delivers an abundant palette of sounds. While in its simplest form it's a basic wood box, the cajon is evolving and mutating into some striking new variations. Let's take a little tour of some of the many new cajons on the scene.
West coast-based percussionist and drummer Jimmy Branly kicks a burning cajon solo.
The cajon's origin may be traced to Africa where its use spread, through the slave trade, to Latin America, especially Peru and Cuba. It may be that slaves used boxes and furniture as instruments to get around colonial bans on drums and music. Today the cajon's use has expanded from Afro-Peruvian, flamenco and rumba to include a vast range of modern musical genres.
The cajon's basic construction follows the traditional design from Peru, a hardwood box with a sound hole on the back or side plus a thin front wood soundboard chosen for it's sonic qualities. In many cajons the front plate is held in place by a number of screws that may be loosened to provide increasing amounts of 'slap' when struck in the corners.
The middle and top end of the front plate is usually played with flat palms, while striking the middle section with a cupped palm delivers a deep bass kick drum-like sound. The player's heel may be used like a kick pedal or pressed against the front to change the pitch.
There is fairly staggering selection of cajons available these days, with a matching wide range of prices. While some cajons in the budget category sound quite good, there are also many inferior instruments flooding the market. The best way to make a selection would be to try a number of drums and find one with satisfying sound in your price range. Another option for those on a tight budget is to purchase one of the "build-your-own" kits on the market.
Those looking for a cajon with more volume should consider a fiberglass instrument. These provide a bright, dynamic sound that won't get lost even in amplified settings. Still need more volume? Consider a cajon with built-in amplification (more on these later).
Bells & Whistles
Accessories like snare wires, bells, or jingles have been added to enhance the basic sound. Strings or wires give a snare drum-like sound that's very popular in flamenco music. Many models allow the snares and bells to be turned on or off with a button or lever. Some progressive percussionists use a customized kick pedal to play the cajon like a bass drum.
If you are playing amplified music, you may want to mic your cajon by placing a microphone close to the rear sound port, and if you have the luxury of using 2 microphones, use the second mic on the front. This 2-mic setup captures both the low-end kick drum sound from the rear as well as your high slaps and other hand sounds from the front. There are also a number of cajons with built-in microphone systems now available to ensure you get heard, even in hard rock, hip-hop, and other high-volume styles.
Pushing The Envelope
Both the major drum manufacturers and smaller specialized enterprises have been taking adventuresome cajon design and construction to new heights. Some of these new instruments include the bongo cajon, emulating the high and low pitches of bongo drums, one of several multi-pitched cajons on the market. LP's Octo-Snare is a portable octagon-shaped drum with snares. Drum company Pearl has created lines of specialized cajons including; the Wedge Tri-Side (with two playing surfaces); Brush-Beat (with textured surface to optimize use of brushes); and Cube (switches to various configurations).
German-based percussion company Meinl also offers an extensive cajon selection, featuring numerous wood and snare options as well as distinctive designs including the Subwoofer (with an extra sound port for enhanced low end) and Slap-Top (played on the top, conga-style).
In addition, various accessories are available to spice up your cajon, including castanets, wood blocks, hand-worn shakers or rattles, brushes, and many more. There are several kick drum pedals made especially for use with the cajon, as well as kick port enhancements to increase the bass response. Many drummers also add other drum set components such as a high-hat or cymbals to their set-up.
It is good to remember that playing a percussion instrument like the cajon is a physical as well as mental discipline, and that a few simple techniques will keep you from getting stressed out while playing.
• Pay attention to your posture. Playing the cajon requires you to bend over at times to play the lower part of the drum. Keep relaxed and try to keep your head and neck aligned.
• Don't hurt your hands! Even without amplification the cajon produces a lot of sound so go easy. If your hands are feeling pain, using band-aids and sports tape on your fingers will help protect your hands. Playing with drum or cajon brushes will also give your hands a needed break.
• Wear ear protection. Your head is in close proximity to a lot of volume when playing percussion: it's worth it to protect your hearing for the long run with specialized ear plugs for musicians.
For drummers who want a smaller format instrument for playing lower volume gigs and small stages, the cajon is a winner. Percussionists looking for a large arsenal of dynamic sounds will find a place for a cajon in their toy box, especially those who are interested in Latin styles such as Spanish flamenco and South American traditional. Even hip-hop and drum-and-bass devotees are finding the cajon to be a little powerhouse of rhythmic expression. Regardless of your stylistic direction, this box of sounds will prove to be a valuable and enjoyable companion on your journey!
Mike Fitch has been a professional drummer and percussionist in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years, and also worked as a copywriter and graphic designer for Musician's Friend.