The cajón (box) is a relatively new addition to flamenco, although we have all become so accustomed to seeing it, one almost forgets. Paco de Lucía, who discovered the cajón in Peru, was the first to use it in his ensemble 30 years ago and the percussionist, Rubem Dantas, marked the anniversary with a series of concerts from 24–28 August in the rural setting of El Espantapájaros, Dolar, Granada.
Rubem Dantas is a Brazilian percussionist from Salvador de Bahia. He came to live and work in Madrid in 1977. It was there that he crossed paths with Paco de Lucíá and then they began to perform together. Like all ‘facts’ in flamenco history, the discovery and inclusion of the cajón in flamenco has a few slightly differing versions. It was discovered by Paco de Lucía, probably with Rubem Dantas, while they were on tour in Peru – on 21–22 March 1980 they gave two performances at the Teatro Municpal in Lima. During a reception at the Spanish Embassy, they were introduced to the Peruvian singer-songwriter and cajón player, Carlos ‘Caitro’ Soto de la Colina (1934–2004), who gave them each a cajón – and then they brought the cajóns back to Spain with them.
Definitely it was Paco de Lucía’s flamenco ensemble that was the first to introduce the cajón to the flamenco percussion section, and other flamenco artists also soon found it to be such an accommodating percussion instrument for flamenco, that they also began to use it. Now we have the situation that the cajón has become an almost obligatory part of the flamenco ensemble.
Other well-respected cajón player are Antonio Carmona (Ketama), El Bandolero, Israel Suarez ‘Piraña’ and Mario Cortés.
Mario Cortés, apart from playing the instrument, has been very involved in modifying the design and experimenting with different woods to achieve a more refined sound. He set up his company, Cajones Flamencos Mario Cortés in Madrid in 1990.
Here is a great video of Mario Cortés building a cajón and explaining all the details:
As he explains, in order to build a good cajón, you have to be a good musician because you have to set the right pitches during construction.
© 2011 Thérèse Wassily Saba