The cajón is the most widely used Afro-Peruvian musical instrument in the 20th century.
Slaves of West and Central African origin in the Americas, specifically Peru, are considered to be the source of the cajón drum; though the instrument is common in musical performance throughout the Americas. In Cuba, the cajón is associated with the Afro-Cuban drum/song/dance style known as rumba, while in Peru it is associated with several Afro-Peruvian genres.
The cajón was most likely developed in coastal Peru during the early 1800s. The instrument reached a peak in popularity by 1850, and by the end of the 19th century cajón players were experimenting with the design of the instrument by bending some of the planks in the cajón's body to alter the instrument's patterns of sound vibration.
Knowing that the cajón comes from slave musicians in the Spanish colonial Americas, there are two complementary origin theories for the instrument. It is possible that the drum is a direct descendant of a number of boxlike musical instruments from west and central Africa, especially Angola, and the Antilles. These instruments were adapted by Peruvian slaves from the Spanish shipping crates at their disposal. In port cities like Matanzas, Cuba they used cod-fish shipping crates. Elsewhere, small dresser drawers became instruments.
Another theory posits that slaves simply used boxes as musical instruments to combat contemporary Spanish colonial bans on music in predominantly African areas. In this way, cajóns could easily be disguised as seats or stools, thus avoiding identification as musical instruments. In all likelihood it is a combination of these factors - African origins and Spanish suppression of slave music - that led to the cajón's creation.
In the 1970s, Peruvian composer and cajón master Caitro Soto gave a cajón as a present to Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucía during one of his visits to Peru. De Lucía liked the sounds of this instrument so much that before leaving the country he bought a second cajón. Later he introduced the cajón to flamenco music.
Half to three quarter inch (1.3 to 2 cm) thick wood is generally used for five sides of the box. A thin sheet of plywood is nailed on as the sixth side and acts as the striking surface or head. A sound hole is cut on the back side opposite the head or tapa.
The top edges are often left unattached and can be slapped against the box. The player sits astride the box, tilting it at an angle while striking the head between his knees. The modern cajón has several screws at the top for adjusting percussive timbre and may sport rubber feet. Some versions may also have several vertically stretched cords pressed against the tapa for a buzz like effect or tone. Guitar strings, rattles or drum snares may serve this purpose. The percussionist can play the sides with the top of his palms and fingers for additional sounds. There are also tube cajón, which are played like a conga.
Today, the cajón is heard extensively in Cuban, Coastal Peruvian or Musica criolla musical styles: Tondero, Zamacueca and Peruvian Waltz, modern Flamenco and certain styles of modern Rumba. The cajón was introduced into flamenco in only the 1970s by guitarist Paco de Lucía. While in Peru, he was given the cajón by percussionist Caitro Soto. In the Paco de Lucia sextet, the cajón is played by Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas. The modern cajón is often used to accompany the acoustic guitar and is showing up on worldwide stages in contemporary music. Matt Krueger, Royal Flush and the Jacks of All Trades, Bon Jovi, Nine Mile, Fightstar, Jennifer Lopez, The Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill, Ozomatli, Fleetwood Mac, Alejandro Sanz with Destiny's Child, Los Lobos, Eric Clapton, Anastacia, Atom Willard, Ben Harper, Lady Danville, Nada Surf, Ben Folds, Violent Femmes, Gaelic Storm, Sara Groves, Scott Matthews, Gipsy Kings, Red Wanting Blue, Sandi Thom, Megson, Tyrone Wells with Mark Chipello, Zack King, Boyce Avenue, the popular Spanish flamenco/rock/rumba duo Estopa, Norah Jones, Seth Lakeman, The Coronas, Jay Chou, and Tom Baxter have all recently featured the cajón either on stage or television, and some have used it in the recording of their albums.
Besides its standard use, the cajon has been played in a variety of ways, according to the influences it has been under over time.
Since it has been widely spread across the world, not only percussionists, but also other musicians have begun to play the cajon. The instrument has been played not only with hands, but also with plastic and metal brushes, as normally used for drums. Another way of playing the cajon is to use an ordinary pedal for bass-drum, thus turning the cajon into an indirect percussion instrument. This enables the player to beat it just like a pedal-bass-drum, but it also restricts the player's standard position. In February 2008, the Italian percussionist Ovidio Venturoso invented and patented a work to play the cajon both with hands and a pedal, without changing the standard position.
Consequently, since the player can use both hands and feet, he is given further possibilities of artistic expression.
Furthermore, since the pedal work enables the Cajon can be played in creative drum-set.
Puerto Rican musician Pedro Barriera designed "wooden bongos".
In the Philippines, it has ushered a new breed of percussionists in the "acoustic" club circuit.
In 2001 the Cajón was declared "National Patrimony" by the Peruvian National Institute of Culture.