The Flamenco Cajón

How and when did flamenco adopt the Peruvian cajón?

Everyone thinks it was Paco de Lucía who first saw something very flamenco in the Peruvian cajón. But according to the biography of Juan José Téllez about the guitarist from Algeciras, the story wasn’t exactly like that. That night in 1977 in Lima, Paco de Lucía was attending a party at the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Peru, where a concert was being held featuring the Peruvian singer Chabuca Granda and the percussionist Caitro Soto. He played the cajón and they sang “La flor de la canela”. It was Rubem Dantas, a percussionist and one of the members of the sextet that Paco had just formed, who first heard something very deep in the sound of the cajón.

“I saw that instrument in Lima,” Rubem Dantas recounted as reported by Téllez, “and I remembered the table in my grandmother’s house in Salvador de Bahía. The good wooden table where I used to play as a child”. Upon seeing the cajón, he proposed to Paco de Lucía: “I think we could incorporate the Peruvian cajón into the group”. He agreed.

Paco de Lucía insists, in many interviews, that he recognized that in that small box was the flamenco percussion he was looking for. For him, “the cajón has the sharp sound of a dancer’s heel and the deep sound of the sole, and moreover, you can take it with you anywhere”. From that night on, the instrument arrived in flamenco to stay, and 50 years later it is automatically associated with the flamenco stage and continues to be considered indispensable in any flamenco production.

The cajón and the flamencos: an automatic marriage

The rest of the flamenco community embraced the cajón as if it had always been a part of their tradition. “Six months later, there was a cajón in every flamenco household in Spain”, remarked Paco de Lucia. A few years later, in 1981, the guitarist released his album “Solo quiero caminar”, the first flamenco album to incorporate the cajón, and the first with the sextet that the tocaor had formed: the percussion of Rubem Dantas, the bass and the lute of Carles Benavent, the flute and saxophone of Jorge Pardo, the flamenco guitar of Ramón de Algeciras, and the voice of Pepe de Lucía.

Despite some initial resistance, the cajón found widespread acceptance, seamlessly integrating into the flamenco tradition. Percussionist José Córdoba ‘Moskito’ explains this immediate connection: “The sound of the cajón fit so well because of its similarity to the palmas, which had always accompanied flamenco, but also because of its proximity to the knuckles, which resemble even more how the cajón sounds. The cajón has brought a lot of rhythmic richness, and has become practically indispensable in many styles such as bulerías, tangos, alegrías, and rumba“, he explains.

A cajón in every recording studio

As ‘Moskito’ clarifies, the cajón swiftly made its presence felt in the recordings of the era. Just two years following Paco de Lucía’s groundbreaking Paco de Lucía’s groundbreaking “Solo quiero caminar”, in 1983, Camarón introduced the instrument in his album “Calle Real”, prominently featured in the tangos “Yo vivo enamorao”. Vicente Amigo, a living legend of flamenco guitar, released his first solo album in 1985, and the cajón can be heard in the bulería “Morao”.. In the same year, the group Ketama, one of the greatest exponents of “new flamenco,” released their first album and used this instrument, which would continue to sound in all their recordings. Similarly, Tomatito included the cajón in his early ventures as a soloist after Camarón’s death, in his album “Rosas del amor”in 1997.

Its significance is further underscored by the academic community. Manuel Gamboa and Faustino Núñez, esteemed flamencologists whose works are widely regarded, leave no room for doubt regarding the cajón’s essencial role in the genre: “It is, in our opinion, the great discovery of deep organology in the 20th century. It offers countless advantages: it doesn’t give a pitch, it doesn’t eat up harmonics, and it fits perfectly with our sounds,” they affirm.

Cajon players and dancers

The adoption of the cajón extended beyond musicians to include dancers, who embraced it as a rhythmic accompaniment to their performances. Joni Cortés, a dancer from the Tablao de Carmen, explains: “The cajón facilitates because the beats are nuanced, it gives the beats with you, and it helps a lot when setting up a kick. Some people prefer the palma, but the cajón gives you very good support”, he explains.

In the 1990s, two great cajon players passed through our tablao: the percussionist Tobalo and the Madrid-born Pepe Motos, promoter of the cajón in flamenco in Catalonia. After them, in Catalan flamenco, artists of the cajón continue to emerge closely linked to our flamenco house: Jonny Sánchez, Jacobo, Paco de Mode, or David Domínguez. Additionally, in Blanes, Catalonia, Juan Heredia ‘Nito’ was born—a renowned dancer and sought-after cajón artisan. “Each one has their unique cajón,” affirms Mimo Agüero, director of the Tablao de Carmen.

Beyond the cajón

The cajón came to be the king of flamenco percussion, but what was there before? In the early days of flamenco, placed by flamencologists in the early 18th century, the sounds accompanying the cante were produced by the human body: knuckles hitting a table, the hand of the tocaor hitting the guitar, palmas, or the distinctive clicks of the tongue. Elements from the environment were also used, such as a bottle of anise, a rod or stick, or small instruments like rattles, bells, or tambourines.

Many of them are still used today, such as the anvil, typically played to accompany the cante por martinete, with the aim of evoking the sound of blacksmiths forging metals in the forge, a common trade of the early flamencos. And of course, castanets have always been present as a flamenco percussion element. The use of castanets, also called palillos, was present in the bolera school since the 17th century, a discipline closely linked to flamenco in its roots, and there are many dancers who still use them today to accompany their dance.

Both the cajón and the knuckles or palmas are hallmarks of flamenco, a way of marking the beat, so inherent to singing, dancing, and guitar. At the Tablao de Carmen, we experience it every night… come and see it up close!