By Dawn Seow
Arthur Choo and Reid Tan did not beat around the bush when they pursued their passion for the box drum known as the cajon—they started The Cajon Connection.
The Cajón (pronunciation as kaˈhone), which means “crate,” “drawer,” or “box” in Spanish, is a box-shaped percussion instrument played by slapping the front face (usually made of thin plywood) with one’s hands. This instrument has become an integral part of Peruvian music and Cuban music in contemporary times.
There are many theories behind the origin of the cajon—some say it started in Africa and others, in Peru. The drum’s simple design–it is literally a box with a sound-hole on one side–is stuff of legend. It was apparently designed by African slaves for whom music-making was prohibited. They were forced to play music in secret, and the cajon, shaped like a box or a stool, could be easily hidden in plain sight.
Gone are those days. The modern cajón has seen a jump in its popularity in recent years. It is often used to accompany the acoustic guitar. American acoustic rock band Boyce Avenue uses the cajón in some of its covers, such as 3 Doors Down’s “Here Without You” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”
The sound of this box drum caught the attention of Arthur Choo, 25, a facilitator for City Harvest Church’s percussion group The Strikeforce, during a trip to Japan in 2005. Walking along the streets of Osaka, he saw a band on the street playing an acoustic guitar accompanied by the cajón. Choo took an instant liking for the instrument and, when he got back to Singapore, mail-ordered a cajon from the Philippines. And that’s how his little love affair began with the drum.
“The cajón is interesting because it covers the same beats as the drum set even though its design is so simple,” explains Choo. “It produces sounds of different pitches when you apply different amounts of pressure at different points. I thought the sound of a cajon would really help build the atmosphere in cell group meetings. I thought it would be a nice idea to introduce the cajón into every cell group in our church, and beyond.”
His vision led him to form, in 2011, The Cajón Connection—a community of box drummers, or cajóneros—to elevate praise and worship in cell groups and smaller zone meetings. The group started with just two members: Choo and a fellow percussionist Reid Tan, 26. To introduce the instrument to the church, they started a nine-week course which attracted more than 200 sign-ups.
“There were only two of us teaching so we could only take 100 students at the start. Out of these, 60 graduated with the basic skills of playing the cajón,” says Choo.
Almost none of these students had any percussion experience, so the lessons were kept very basic. They learned the history of the cajón, drumming techniques and rhythms, playing different beats and sounds, and creating flow. They were taught how to accompany for both praise and worship songs.
“The age group of the class ranged from 12 to 55,” describes Choo. “Teaching such a diverse group was really challenging. Different age groups have different learning speeds and we needed to make sure everyone was on the same page all the time.
“But above learning the skills, we also wanted the students to understand how to ‘flow’ with their leader and worship leader. The important thing is for them not to forget the purpose of serving. It’s a spirit that cannot be taught, it has to be caught.”
The efforts of these two passionate instructors have paid off: over half of their graduates are now playing the cajón in their cell group meetings. For cell groups that don’t yet have a cajonero, Choo has selected 10 of the most experienced from TCC to guest-play at their meetings.
Cell-group leader of N432, Guo Xiangcen, 31, said that his cell-group has been very blessed by TCC. “It was the first time we experienced praise and worship with a new instrument. The cajón, together with the guitar, brought the whole spiritual atmosphere to a brand new level. The cajónero, Edwin, was very experienced and we were able to coordinate well to lead the cell-group members into the presence of God. In addition, when Edwin came a second time , he stayed behind to teach many of the cell-group members the basics of playing a cajón. His passion and enthusiasm inspired many in the group to learn the instrument.”
TCC also has a website that brings new and old cajoneros together to interact on a forum, and find out more about cajon playing. and learn. The website was created by Tan, a web developer. What new cajoneros find helpful on the site are online videos of familiar praise and worship songs from CHC, played by a guitarist and cajonero, accompanied by a singer. This feature, which is only available to registered members of the website, shows how the beats of the cajón should blend into each song.
“The website is not only for CHC members,” says Tan. ” We also welcome other churches, locally and internationally, to join us as members, to exchange knowledge. A few people from other churches have already contacted us through the website, and we hope that more people from around the world will join this community.”