What’s In the Box?

Part drumset, part hand drum, and every bit a remarkably flexible percussion instrument in a very unassuming package, the cajon is over 500 years old but only recently found popularity in the United States in coffeehouses, band rooms, and music stores. Bands like Coldplay now use the cajon for smaller acoustic sets in their concerts and Broadway shows like Once have made the cajon their percussion instrument of choice on stage.

A cajon originated in Peru as a shipping crate. It simply happened to be the resource available to displaced slaves from Africa determined to find anything to serve as a drum. Given how interconnected percussion was with the lives and culture of these individuals, not having drums was not an option! Peruvian cajons are wooden boxes about a foot square and 18-20″ tall. The front surface of the instrument is made of a thin piece of resonant wood and a sound port hole is typically cut in the back or one of the sides. From Peru, the cajon gradually made its way to Spain where it was incorporated into flamenco music. Flamenco cajons typically add wire strings strung along the inside the front plate to create a buzzing snare sound when the cajon is struck. Not unlike other instruments with an international heritage (djembe, congas, marimba, etc.) the cajon has now found a place in formal percussion study at schools and universities and in all styles of American popular music.

While many percussion instruments are played with sticks or mallets, others like the cajon are commonly played with the hands. Often, as soon as the stick is taken out of the way, a great deal more variations in sounds and strokes are made available to the performer. Just a quick perusal of cajon videos on YouTube will demonstrate resonant bass sounds, slap strokes, finger trills, ghost notes, knocking sounds, and much more. Yet, despite its hand percussion designation, the cajon is often referred to as a “drumset in a box,” particularly because of its use in smaller, coffee-house, acoustic music settings. Combining bass tones and snare slaps with more subtle filler and ghost notes, a skilled percussionist can effectively create rock, bossa nova, samba, shuffle styles and more on this humble instrument.

While notation for cajon is not yet standardized and, as with drumset, many players perform on the cajon without notated music, some of the basic concepts (i.e. low voices lower on the staff, different note shapes for effect sounds, etc.) are beginning to be applied to cajon as literature for the instrument is created. Several books, DVDs, and web-based video lessons are available for cajon, some of which teach the instrument through demonstration while others incorporate a notation system similar to that used for other percussion instruments. To some extent, cajon players are able to transfer their skills to other parts of the percussion family and percussionists are able to come to cajon with the techniques and rhythmic concepts already developed from playing drumset or other percussion instruments.

Composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison and performing ensembles like Blue Man Group and Stomp have long ago blurred the lines between traditional instruments and music performed with found sounds. The cajon may have simple origins, and even in its current form may not be the most impressive instrument, but its simplicity, small package, and flexible function as a hand drum or a drumset is only increasing its popularity. So the real question isn’t what’s in the box, but rather what music can you make with your box!

Check out music by Josh Gottry for cajon …

All Hands on Deck


Outside the Box

Take a Seat