Rhythm in a box: The story of the cajon drum – Paul Jennings

Rhythm in a box: The story of the cajon drum – Paul Jennings

Many modern musical instruments
are cumbersome or have a lot of parts. Some need a stand or a stool. But the cajon is a drum, a stand
and a seat all in one convenient box. And this simplicity may be key to
its journey across continents and cultures to become one of the most popular
percussion instruments in the world today. The cajon’s story begins in West Africa, whose indigenousness people
had rich musical traditions centered on drumming and dancing. When many of them were captured
and brought to the Americas as slaves, they brought this culture with them, but without their native instruments,
they had to improvise. African slaves in coastal Peru
didn’t have the materials or the opportunity to craft
one of their traditional drums such as a djembe or a djun djun. But what they did have
were plenty of shipping crates. Not only were these readily accessible, but their inconspicuous appearance may have helped get around laws
prohibiting slaves from playing music. Early Peruvian cajons
consisted of a simple box with five thick wooden sides. The sixth side, made of
a thinner sheet of wood, would be used as the striking surface, or more commonly known as the tapa. A sound hole was also cut into the back
to allow the sound to escape. As an Afro-Peruvian culture developed, and new forms of music and dance,
such as Zamacueca, Festejo and Landó were born, the cajon became a dedicated musical
instrument in its own right. Early modifications involved simply
bending the planks of the box to tweak the sound, and when abolition of slavery introduced
the cajon to a broader population, more improvisation
and experimentation soon followed. Perhaps the person most responsible
for introducing the cajon to European audiences was Spanish
Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía. When touring in Peru in 1977, he and his percussionist Rubem Dantas discovered the cajon
and brought it back to Spain, recognizing its potential
for use in Flamenco music. By stretching guitar strings
along the inside of the tapa, the flamenco musicians were able to create
a buzz-like snare sound. Combined with the regular base tone, this gave the cajon a sound
close to a basic drum set. The cajon quickly caught on, not only becoming standard in Flamenco, but being used in genres like folk,
jazz, blues and rock. Today, many specialized cajons
are manufactured, some with adjustable strings, some with multiple playing surfaces, and some with a snare mechansim. But the basic concept remains the same, and the story of the cajon shows that the simplest things
can have the most amazing potential when you think outside and inside the box.


  1. Sound hole is to tune the resonance of the enclosure, not for sound to escape. It will emit sound with or without a hole.

  2. 0:44 I'm certain slaves didn't have that much room on the ship. The slave ships were described as crowded, humid, and dark (as the slaves were held below deck most of the time).

    I do really like the cajon, though. I have a mini one that I can play it in a similar way as one would a bongo. It has a wide range of sounds, which is really interesting to experiment with alone or in a group. I'm in a band, so, in coffee houses especially, we usually don't bring a full drum set with us.

  3. Looks like they use the app 53 pages or something like that I can tell because of the utensils they used on the app

  4. i love ted-ed and especialy when it does cartoon with its lectures cause it looks adorable i love the artist style 🙂 sorry i know its irrelevant to the lesson buts i just had to put that out their

  5. I know what it is harpsichord, trembita and jew's harp but I never heard about this "most popular percussion instrument".

  6. Hi TED and Paul Jennings I'm from Perú I'd like to say something regarding this videos the person who give away is Caitro Soto.

  7. This TED talk regurgitates a point of view that is popular and romantic, saying that the cajón starts with West Africa. Not so. People confuse the development of the instrument, which grew out of an earlier tradition in Peru of drumming on the carcass of a harp as a percussive accompaniment, assuming that it must simply be an extension of a musical tradition that comes from somewhere in continental Africa, just because “Africa is drums” — right?

    That is pure conjecture for which there is little actual evidence, while there is plenty of pictorial and documented evidence that the cajón evolved from the need for a percussion instrument when the harp fell out of fashion in Lima and was replaced by the guitar.

    There was already a drumming tradition in existence among pre-colombian cultures in Peru. Besides, the cajón only starts becoming popular in Lima during the early to mid 19th century. There is no evidence to say that the cajón was an instrument that developed on slave ships or during the time of the conquistadors. That is fantasy.

    It makes no appearance in the CODEX of Peruvian culture commissioned by the Archbishop of Trujillo in 1782, or in the watercolours of Pancho Fierro painted around 1820, whereas other drums – now fallen into disuse in Peru – which can be identified as having an equivalent in Africa – such as log drums – actually do appear.

    Note, I am not saying that some of Lima’s “black” communities are not expert in playing cajón – they are. But then, the cajón also had expert criollo practitioners – Mono Aristedes, Pepe Ezeta and Gancho Arciniega, for instance.

    All I am saying is that this TED talk at its beginning is not historically correct. It makes assumptions that are based upon popular misconceptions of the cajón as an instrument that evolved out of Africa and on slave-ships, without reference to any documentary evidence that exists in Peru.

  8. "With respect to the comment whether it does not originally come from Africa, I would like to say that the cajon was originated in peruvian people of black and slave origin. It is therefore difficult to believe that the cajón is a traditional instrument. On the other hand and to add a little more to this great story of the origins of cajón, the new sound of this instrument arrived here in Spain thanks to Rubén Dantas and MANOLITO SOLER (bailaor in that famous Paco de Lucia tour). Apparently the cajón they brought to Spain was faulty or broken from the frontal part, so from here all the first cajón players like me, we tried to make cajones that were "faulty" or "broken" at the upper part of the instrument. We even used to put sand bags stuck in that upper part to achieve the right pitch (that of a broken cajón). With time, luthiers started using snare and base guitar strings. "
    I have translated these comments from my husband Juan, thanks Ted Ed for making this video.

  9. The Cajón is a great instrument with a long story. The video states that the strings were added as an invention outside Perú, when in Trujillo and Arequipa in the 1950's cajones were already being made and sold with strings inside, although not used by most players at the time.

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