The percussive sound of folks sitting atop a cajón de embalaje and banging out a rhythm has accompanied traditional music for years. Many, many years. Often called a drumkit in a box, many of today's examples come with built-in snare sounds, bass drum pedal attachments and all manner of jingle-jangle accessories, but the basic instrument remains true to its Peruvian ancestors. Teenage cajon maker Stephen Henderson has designed and built a new series of wooden boxes with a 5-way snare lock mechanism and integrated kick pedal.
Legends of origin talk of 18th century Angolan slaves in the Peru region using boxes for simple communication or a rhythmic evolution of the fish crates used by African slaves in America during the 16th century. Wherever the cajon came from, it has grown up considerably, broken away from its South American roots and been at the rhythmic heart of folk music the world over for an absolute age.
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There are variations on the theme, but for the most part the modern cajon is a six-sided wooden box strong enough to sit on, usually having a thin board out front (called the head or tapa) and a sound hole to the back or side. The player slaps the tapa with bare hands and fingers, or with sticks, brushes or mallets. Placed in the expert hands of a rhythm king like David Kuckhermann, an ordinary-looking wooden box is given a captivating percussive voice.
Many modern "beatboxes" have wires stretched over the board to create a snare drum sound or are sat on top of a kick pedal bracket for some low end thump. Stephen Henderson out of Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, sought to address one of the problems with stringed cajons – they often go out of tune. Strings tuned for a tight, clean sound can have more snare rattle than a player might want. Or those loosened for higher frequencies and sustain can give off an unwelcome buzz.
Getting the sound just right can involve a lot of pre-performance tweaking, and may even see some tape being used (taping strings to the inside of the head when they start getting a bit tired is a neat little trick to control rattle, though only a temporary solution).
"Percussionists voiced their frustrations with the traditional six-sided, wooden Cajon, as they found it hard to create a consistent tone and thought the external systems had more to offer them," said Henderson. "I set about designing a style of Cajon that would enhance the instrument both musically and aesthetically."
Henderson started crafting cajons back in 2011 at the age of 16, which found their way into the hands of friends and family. He was later approached by musicians to build cajons with specific features, which saw the young maker's passion turn from hobby to business. He formed Ruach Music a couple of years ago (the company name coming from the Hebrew word for wind/breath/mind/spirit – "as in Genesis 1v2 it states 'the spirit of God vibrated over the waters,' which created a frequency and is therefore the first instance of music in history," he told us), and has made and sold over 400 MK cajons.
More recently, he's been perfecting a new series of cajon with the help of Queen's University Belfast and engineers throughout Northern Ireland. The Live series allows the player to choose between five sounds helped along by 20 strand snare wires that can be locked in place during a performance. And, rather than requiring musicians to carry around an extra kick pedal, the new instrument has also been fitted with an internal bass pedal that's brought into play via an external, heal-operated lever.
Each Live cajon features 12 mm (0.47 in) medium-density veneered fiberboard and a 4 mm veneered ply tapa around an aluminum frame to help ensure solid, road-worthy performance. The rear board is home to a unique sound hole, the shape of which is repeated in the snare lock and kick pedal, and in the company logo. The curve to the top of the sound hole also makes for a comfortable carry handle. The snare lock and bass pedal handles can be removed for transport using a hex key, which is stored inside the instrument. Detachable nylon handles that help with transport and rubber feet complete the build specs.
To get the Live Series market-ready and into the hands of players, Ruach Music has launched on Kickstarter. Two models are on offer. The flagship Live A sports the internal kick pedal system, 5-way snare lock, detachable handles and aluminum frame. The Live B is essentially the same as the A, minus the bass pedal.
Early bird Live A cajons are available for a pledge of £320 (US$540), which is £130 cheaper than the estimated post-Kickstarter price, while early Live B units are pitched at £270. If all goes to plan, Henderson will start shipping Live Series cajons out to backers in October.
"I will be taking additional staff on over the next few weeks in order to manufacture the Live Series, and the MK-Range, along with outsourcing the aluminum parts so as I can scale to demand," he revealed. He also told us that should funding be unsuccessful, he'll be seeking equity investment to get the Live Series into production.
Have a look at the Kickstarter pitch video below.