I wonder if percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, who appeared recently with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, ever plays the cajon?

Judging from her fantastic work on the snare drum, it might have been more interesting than the neo-Romantic concerto for marimba that followed her 12-tone snare-drum concert-piece. The marimba, sniffs musicologist Percy Scholes, is an instrument “that apparently is taken seriously in the United States.”

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, we met drummer Gerardo Rodriguez, who plays in a “fusion” band called Colaboracion Jiba and also builds cajones (not to be confused with cojones).

I had never heard of a cajon before, but after Rodriguez produced one, sat on it, and proceeded to play, I was hooked. I’m getting one made.

Cajones come in all sizes, shapes and colors, but they are basically boxes made of thin wood or plywood, high enough to sit on comfortably, a little more than a foot deep and two feet wide, with a sound hole cut in the back. Some have guitar strings stretched across the back to provide a snare-drum effect.

What is most fascinating about the instrument, and has led to its popularity in Cuban music, is the wide range of sounds it can produce, changing both in pitch and timbre as the performer moves his hands from the center to the edge of the box.

A large cajon has a very deep, hollow bass voice. The only sound that comes near it is made by a large half gourd floating in a tub of water, when struck with a felt hammer, or maybe one of those truck-size Japanese drums that Yamato sometimes brings to town. The cajon has the advantage over these of being easier to acquire and play, although in the hands of a master, the result is equally spectacular.

In the Latin music I have heard, notably the Rumba, the cajon sound blends perfectly with a string bass.

The origin of the cajon, like that of the steel drum, has to do with the prohibition by slave-holders of African musical instruments that might be used to communicate and thus aid in rebellion, like the one in Haiti that so terrified plantation owners in the U.S.

Deprived of their native drums, slaves in Peru, where the cajon originated, turned to shipping crates, or, some say, bureau drawers, to amuse themselves and provide a beat for dancing. Perhaps to communicate too, since one can change pitch on a cajon almost as easily as on a “talking drum.”

Another nice thing about the cajon is that it causes one to think inside the box. Why should nearly all musical instruments be round or curved, when you can get such good sound from something square and angular? Rodriguez and others have begun building congas and djembes from wood in the shape of a tapered rectangle, and they sound just as good as those made in the traditional form.

Rodriguez recommended several masters of the instrument, but my favorite is the Puerto Rican musician and teacher Efrain Toro, who can be heard on YouTube at tinyurl.com/oavgku.

Toro, who has written 15 books on rhythm, has some intriguing ideas — for example, that the first rhythm we can recognize is two against three, that all rhythms are either waltzes or polkas, and that harmony is a form of rhythm …

As in the earlier enthusiastic column on steel drums, I am probably preaching to the converted, and there are 36 Latin dance groups in Maine right now playing the cajon, but I’m recommending it to Inana anyway. 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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