Latin Beat - November 2001 -

Reprinted from Latin Beat Magazine - November 2001

The Kotz ToneCajón

The cajón is an instrument believed to have originated in Cuba and Perú; an instrument that developed when the slaves' drums had been taken away and banned. In Matanzas, dock workers laid down a beat on the sides of cod shipping crates. Soon other wooden boxes and even dresser drawers were being used for similar purposes. The instruments caught on and the cajón became an integral part of Cuban music, particularly the yambú, a slow rumba.

In Perú, the instrument was played with detached top corners creating a slap or handclap sound to compliment the low tones. In Spain, the cajon has become, in recent decades, the main percussive accompaniment in flamenco music. From Latin to funk, from alternative to unplugged rock sessions, it's fast becoming an important part of the hand drummer's arsenal of equipment.

It still looks like a wooden box. The player sits on it and strikes it with his hands much like playing a conga or djembe. Typically, one side is made from a very thin piece of wood that acts as a head, yet all sides of the box can be played. Unlike other hand drums, there is no skin on it. It's all wood. The size of the box, the size and placement of the sound hole(s), the type and thickness of the wood, all contribute immensely to each instrument's voice.

Fast forward to 1997. After seeing and playing the instrument at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, Michael Kotzen, a bass player and percussionist, was hooked on the instrument. Alas, the cajón was not for sale, so he decided to build one. And then another, and another...

Kotzen took up the challenge to construct a cajón that would be capable of a broad spectrum of tonal capabilities. With the help of Brian Radney, a master craftsman, the instrument's evolution continued. Three years later, utilizing tone woods generally associated with acoustic guitar building, along with many design innovations and refinements the Kotz ToneCajon was born.

Kotz cajones generally feature a very thin spruce back, which serves as a diaphragm (much like the sound board of an acoustic guitar). The result is a remarkably clear and resonant tone. The “head” is made from a variety of different woods depending upon the desired sound. The low tones are warm, and the rim or high sounds are bright, without sacrificing character.

The evolution continues. He credits his continuing dialog with percussionists as the driving force for his innovations. This feedback has led him to several entirely new approaches to cajón design and construction.

Kotzen found that cajones with loosened corners (for slap sounds) often lack low bass resonance. To facilitate slap sounds and maintain the tonal integrity of the instrument, he designed “Palmas” or “Slap-Pads” which attach to the exterior of the drum.

For large outdoor situations, ToneCajones are available with internally mounted pickup systems. Along with luthier Harry Fleishman, Kotzen developed an extremely warm sounding pickup.

To satisfy the ever-increasing quest for new sounds a variety of snares, wire, and spring choices are available. “César Rosas (of Los Lobos fame) showed me one that had a coat hanger in it. It sounded great!”

For players who prefer to stand Kotzen designed cajones with legs. In fact, the piece he's most excited about is a large “double” mounted on sculptural legs that can be played like a set of congas. Actually consisting of two drums in one, the tonal range of this instrument is remarkable. Visually, it's impossible to detect the separate chambers, so Kotzen enjoys watching people's response as they discover the tones. One particular fond memory was watching Leon Mobley who stated, “Man, this thing is the Millennium Cajón, you can play the groove and lead at the same time". Leon dazzled audiences in Japan and Europe with the double on the recent Ben Harper tour.

During the NAMM show in Anaheim, Kotzen had the opportunity to share two ToneCajones with Giovanni Hidalgo and Jesús Díaz. One was made with Eastern figured hard maple and the other with genuine Honduran mahogany. Both had solid maple heads and spruce backs. They played them for nearly 40 minutes.

“Hearing beautiful music like that being made on my instruments is the ultimate reward,” says Kotzen. “I feel very fortunate to be able to contribute in a small way to the creative process of making music.”

Michael builds about 30 cajones a year. Each one is custom built to compliment the player's needs and playing style. A true craftsman, his love of wood is evident and one can see his attention to detail reflected in how he works with the natural beauty of each board. The maple heads are often book matched from stunning figured maple. “I try to create instruments to be as pleasing to the eye as to the ear,” he says. Kotzen doesn't use any nails or screws to put the boxes together, just glue and clamps.

Kotzen also builds marímbulas, the bass version of the Kalimba. Also a box, it has metal tines that are plucked to simulate the sound of an upright bass. Wil-Dog of Ozomatli used one on Canto the new release by Los Super Seven. Los Lobos is currently recording with a Kotz String Cajón and Lenny Castro has made it part of his session kit.

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© Michael Kotzen 1997-2022