The country of Peru has slowly come to recognize a treasure in its midst. The “cajon,” the traditional wooden box drum of Afro-Peruvians, was only recognized as a Peruvian national instrument by that nation’s federal government in 2001, and this was only because Spanish Flamenco musicians had begun using the instrument and praised its numerous rhythmic abilities.
The instrument is a wooden box or drawer that drummers straddle while tapping with an open palm or fingertips.
There are numerous theories about the origin of the cajon. Enslaved Africans in Peru are believed to have used old shipping crates and turned them into drums because there was a ban on African music, Spaniards believing it might help slaves organize uprisings. Another theory holds that the cajon is actually similar to boxlike instruments that were traditionally used in Angola.
The instrument was, for most of its history, solely relegated to the realms of Afro-Peruvian music. But today, with its national recognition, Peru promotes use and knowledge about the cajon in its schools and museums and through countrywide programs.
Nov. 1, the regional Organization of American States will give the cajon international recognition during a gala ceremony in Washington, D.C. The upcoming ceremony will also pay homage to recently deceased actor and musician Rafael Santa Cruz, as well as to singer Jose Escajadillo, who has written over 600 waltzes.
Santa Cruz died suddenly of a heart attack at age 53, just this past August. The author of “El Cajon Afroperuano” (Lima: Cocodrilo Verde Ediciones, 2004), Santa Cruz was a recognized promoter of the cajon. In 2013, he organized the gathering of 1,524 cajon players during the International Peruvian Cajon Festival. The 1,524 cajon players came to Lima’s Playa Mayor and set a Guinness World Record for most cajon players playing at the same time.