CAJON: Xylophonic drum from the family of the idiophones. It is a wooden parallelepiped with an exit hole in the rear face.
The first African inhabitants arrived in America –they were brought I should say- with little belongings. They were deprived of everything, including drums, one of their main instruments of expression.
Fernando Ortíz says: “By drum, in a large sense, we usually understand: a percussive instrument which sonority comes from beating directly and externally the hollow and resonant body, whether in any place of the box or in any other place specifically meant to sound. According to this drum organological meaning: a percussive instrument on the outside part of its resonant box, we should include the wooden drums or xylophones and even some kind of percussive idiophones. We say xylophonics or xylophones because we stick to the Greek roots of the word, in a generic and proper sense, and not in the marimba’s incorrect and limited sense. The marimba in Europe is called xylophone by antonomasia, because it really is a wooden sound instrument. So, such instruments can be called xylophones if we attend with accuracy and strictness to the word’s etymological element and to a generic sense”, says Fernando Ortiz.
The ancient Afro-Americans found their way to obtain new percussion instruments, some of them did it by imitating the instruments left in Africa, others did it by just creating new ones (already Americans). During the drum playing prohibition, among other reasons, boxes surely appeared, and the authorities thought these boxes weren’t drums but “homemade instruments” to replace them because they hadn’t animal skin on them, so they didn’t really care about it. Something similar could have happened with some travelers and painters that adopted the popular expressions of that time. They definitely didn’t think that “those boxes” would evolve the way they did.
Nevertheless, such totally rustic boxes, made to transport merchandise or products, started little by little to be used for some songs and dances rhythmic accompaniments. They started to be called “cajones” and “cajas” (boxes).
It is very difficult to tell the exact place and date in which the cajon was born because of its homely and humble origins. It is likely that the cajon had been used by the Afro population as an instrument in different places of America long before the date travelers and observers claim to be. As this “cajon” then returned to its original daily use as a container, it wouldn’t be catalogued in its beginnings as a musical instrument.
That is why there is no clear data about the cajon before the mid XIX century. Though there is no clear clue indicating that Peru is the country where the cajon was born, the most ancient testimonies that mention it are in Lima. It’s been said that the cajon is an instrument that came from other countries to Peru, which seems not to be true.
Though some claim that the cajon existed in Peru since the XVII century, we haven’t been able to find a document that certifies this assumption. Available evidence seems to indicate that the cajon appeared in the XIX century.
The history and trajectory of Peru’s cajon “already converted” into a musical instrument are intimately linked to the Zamacueca, for it was exported to other countries of America by accompanying it. Atanasio Fuentes, great studious person of the Lima from the 800, publishes around 1867: “We have said that the Amancaes dance is the Zamacueca; the orchestra for that dance is formed by harp and guitar, and to these instruments is added a kind of drum, normally made out of a box which slabs are removed so that the beat is louder. This instrument is played with the hands or with two sticks of cane, and it is hard to have an idea of the know-how and ear with which the black person who plays the cajon, follows the rhythm and cheers up the dancers. Since the cajon is the heart of the orchestra, the common people have called the Zamacueca the “polca de cajon” (cajon polka). This paragraph says clearly that the cajon plays the main role; it places the cajon at the top within the group of instruments that musically accompanied the zamacueca from the mid XIX century. The zamacueca was very popular in different countries of South America; it was even sung and danced in some parts of Mexico and California during the Gold Fever.
In Lima, in 1870, the musician Claudio Rebagliati, in a clarifying note attached to its scores, gives information about the zamacueca’s accompaniment based in the guitar, harp and cajon.
In 1879, the Marinera, which is a version of the ancient zamacueca with some changes in its choreography and its musical structure, appeared and became later Peru’s National Dance. The Marinera is still being accompanied by guitar and cajon.
The oldest photograph of a cajon dates from this time. In 1895, some members of the group called “La Palizada” gathered in the “Jardin de la Exposición” (Exhibiton Garden) in Lima. This group was formed by men of different ages, bohemians, creoles, that knew very well the jaranas (binges) of Lima. There, some songs accompanied with guitar and cajon were improvised.
At that time, this musical instrument was created from the whisky and fruit boxes, as well as with the oil and grease cans; and the boxes such as those used to transport kerosene (raw material for lighting) were never wasted because they offered great percussion sounds.
The cajon has accompanied the big parties pealing in the marineras for years. In the late 1940s, the flirting of the cajon with the “vals criollo” or Peruvian waltz started. Too many performers oppose this union but finally it happens: the cajon and the waltz are married after almost twenty years later.
However, the rediscovery of the Afro-Peruvian music in the late fifties allowed the cajon to decorate itself as lord and master of the rhythm in Peru’s coastal music.
In the sixties, Victoria Santa Cruz Gamarra created dances with the cajon as sole accompaniment. She gave strength and fame to this instrument by centering it in her group the “Teatro y Danzas Negras del Peru”, and then in the “Conjunto Nacional de Folklore”. The group Peru Negro diffused the cajon abroad with its presentations, in which stands out pieces composed exclusively for it. In this decade, the cajon is and stays definitely related to the Peruvian waltz, although it is hard to cite who first realized the recording of a waltz accompanied by a cajon. It is possible that Carlos Hayre did it while making a production for the singer Alicia Maguiña.
In Peru today, the cajon is present in almost all kinds of Afro-rooted music (lundero, lando, festejo, alcatraz, toromata, panalivio, inga, etc.), and also accompanies the Peruvian waltz, the Creole polka, the one step, the pasodoble, the tondero and the marinera.
Likewise, the cajon is adopted by the coastal inhabitants with Andean origins. They started to use it to reinterpret some “traditional” kinds of music and create new expressions of the city’s popular music. Then, the cajon flirted with rock music, and from there went to modern music called fusion music, World Music, ethnic music, among others.
The cajon is from the family of the idiophones or auto-resonators instruments, which means that the instrument itself creates the sound. There are instruments whose bodies, made of wood or metal, are hard but have enough elasticity as to maintain a vibrating movement.
The cajon is a wooden parallelepiped with an exit hole in the rear face and it is generally beaten on the front side. While the cajon was an instrument used barely outside Peru until not long ago, in our country it reached leading levels. Its function is not the one of a monotonous accompaniment instrument but that of a main instrument that combines, accompanies, and executes solos.
It is amazing to observe this instrument’s richness, adaptability, and functionality as well as its construction techniques. This is what made the cajon our main percussion instrument.
In no other country has the cajon taken root as profoundly as in Peru. It has become our main percussion instrument because of its richness and frequency of use, its adaptability, functionality, construction techniques, the place it conquered within the Peruvians, and above all, the skilfully execution of this instrument reached by our musicians. The development in rhythm reached by the Afro Peruvians, and the diffusion of the cajon in Peru’s coastal music and now all over the world is outstanding.
Peru’s “official history” excludes the contribution of the Afro Peruvians. With regard to the cajon, their contribution is clear, conclusive, and indisputable. The cajon is a real and vital element of the Afro Peruvians’ resistance. However, for years, this instrument had been present and, with few exceptions, nobody cared. These last years, a new movement in favour of the cajon has been born, and it was declared National Patrimony by the National Institute of Culture in 2001.
Some years ago we proposed to officially name the cajon “CAJON AFROPRERUANO” (Afro-Peruvian Cajon) to show our gratitude to its Afro origins; -for leaving us such a beautiful instrument, which appeared and developed as part of the African descendants’ cultural resistance. But before we loose its roots in “Peruvianism” by adding the prefix “Afro” to its name (which is only a reference to the African origins) we accepted the cajon to be named CAJON PERUANO (Peruvian Cajon).
*A very similar article was published in Portuguese in the issue 10 of the magazine HISTORIA VIVA – GRANDES TEMAS in 2005, with the title EL CAJON (AFRO) PERUANO – O SOM DA RESISTENCIA.