A cajón (Spanish: [kaˈxon]; "box", "crate" or "drawer") is a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front or rear faces (generally thin plywood) with the hands, fingers, or sometimes implements such as brushes, mallets, or sticks. Cajones are primarily played in Afro-Peruvian music (specifically música criolla), but has made its way into flamenco as well. The term cajón is also applied to other box drums used in Latin American music, such as the Cuban cajón de rumba and the Mexican cajón de tapeo.
Sheets of 13 to 19 mm (1/2 to 3/4 inch) thick wood are generally used for five sides of the box. A thinner sheet of plywood is nailed on as the sixth side and acts as the striking surface or head. The striking surface of the cajón drum is commonly referred to as the tapa. A soundhole is cut on the backside. The modern cajón may have rubber feet and has several screws at the top for adjusting percussive timbre.
Originally the instruments were only wooden boxes, but, thanks to a contribution by Spanish flamenco exponent Paco de Lucía, now they may have several stretched cords pressed against the top for a buzz-like effect, resembling a snare drum — guitar strings (the original modification), rattles or drum snares may serve this purpose. Bells may also be installed inside near the cords.
The cajón is the most widely used Afro-Peruvian musical instrument since the late 19th century. Slaves of the west and central African origin in the Americas are considered to be the source of the cajón drum. Currently, the instrument is common in musical performance throughout some of the Americas and Spain. The cajón was developed during the periods of slavery in coastal Peru. 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. After slavery, the cajón was spread to a much larger audience including Criollos.
Given 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 the west and central Africa, especially Angola, and the Antilles. These instruments were adapted by slaves from the Spanish shipping crates at their disposal. In port cities like Matanzas, Cuba, codfish shipping crates and small dresser drawers became similar instruments. Peruvian musician and ethnomusicologist Susana Baca recounts her mother's story that the cajón originated as "the box of the people who carried fruit and worked in the ports," putting it down to play on whenever they had a moment. Another theory is that slaves used boxes as musical instruments to subvert Spanish colonial bans on music in predominantly African areas, essentially disguising their instruments.
While early 20th century versions of the festejo appeared to have been performed without the cajón, especially due to the influence of Perú Negro, a musical ensemble founded in 1969, the cajón began to be more important than the guitar and, indeed, became "a new symbol of Peruvian blackness".
After a short 1977 visit to a diplomat’s party and a TV presentation in Lima along with Peruvian percussionist Caitro Soto, Spanish flamenco guitar player Paco de Lucía brought a cajón to Spain to use it in his own music, after being impressed by the rhythmic possibilities of the instrument. In 2001, the cajón was declared National Heritage by the Peruvian National Institute of Culture. In 2014, the Organization of American States declared the cajón an "Instrument of Peru for the Americas".