“The Best Cajon” in the Time of the Illusion of Choice

The top of a cajon tapa.
The tapa top of a precisely made cajon.

It think the French girl I chatted with in the hostel kitchen this evening thinks I’m a bit daft… I went on for a bit about how “cajons are like toothpaste”. She may have misinterpreted my meaning. I tried my best to really emphasize the C in ‘cajon’.  I tried, I really did. In Spanish class today my professor tactfully pointed out the significant differences between the hard C and the soft c when pronouncing ‘cajon’. I never knew.

My thesis revolved around the concept sometimes called the ‘Illusion of Choice’ – the marketing technique whereas a company produces many, more or less identical products, with completely different names and packaging. Thus giving the consumer the appearance choice. Yet all come from the same company, similar factories, with perhaps slightly different amounts of… sugar, or something.

Cajon guitar snare wire adjustment wrench
Many cajons come with wrenches stored inside to adjust the snare wires. The Velcro holds the snare wire against the back of the tapa.

I went to 9 music stores here in Quito, Ecuador today… looking at and playing cajons.  I sat on and tried out 6 different ‘brands’. Turns out most were made in Thailand. It got me thinking about one of the webs ‘best cajons reviews’ I recently suffered through. They looked at 10 cajons, but as I counted up there were 2 models from the global manufacturer I call ‘Big Cajon’ and 4, maybe even 6, from ‘brands’ who I suspect are either completely owned by or partnered with Big Cajon.  The 2 brands I think are fully independent were given good but not outstanding reviews.

I tried to explain to the French girl how 3 or 4 companies make most of the toothpaste in the world but if you look at the shelves in many stores you seem to have an amazing number of choices. Choices that are an illusion. My passionate comparison of toothpaste to cajons was perhaps not well thought out. But as a millennial with good teeth and not much interest in percussion, she shrugged it off and the conversation moved on.

Tomorrow night I will attempt to clarify: as with toothpaste, when searching for a quality cajon, there may be many ‘brands’ in reviews and stores that could actually be from the same company, similar factories, with perhaps slightly different amounts of… sugar, or something.

Inside a cajon box. showing snare wires.
Attachment of snare wires in a cajon.

Unlike health care products, the labeling and reporting origins of factory made cajons may sometimes be incomplete. This website, Cajons of the World, is devoted to promoting the work of local cajon manufacturers.  I try to ensure the lists are accurate.  I look at and evaluate each builders website and videos. I chat with builders I am uncertain of to verify their location. Occasionally I may ask for additional photos of the manufacturing process or to tour the workshop. I consider the output from one factory, no matter what the tapa graphic or labeling may tout, to be from a single manufacturer.

For more-or-less unbiased help navigating the drum box illusion of choice check out: The Best Cajon from this site.  For more information on why cajon brands are added or removed from this site please see “About CajonsMadeIn.com“, “Tapa Graphics” and “Made-in vs. Assembled-in

Moral of the story: Consumer, beware the illusion of choice in the time of “the best cajon”.

Inside a cajon showing the attachment of snare wires at the bottom of the tapa.
Attachment of adjustable snare wire inside the cajon at the base of the tapa.

Cajons “Made in” vs “Assembled in”

Is it really “Made in”?

I am beginning to wonder about a few manufacturers,  a very few, who advertise their cajons as ‘Made in’.  There are three or four makers in the developing world with very precise cajons, with many models and many complex, high quality tapa graphics options – a collection of qualities that seems improbable for a local cajon maker who has been in business for 4 or 5 years.

When I first started building the Cajons of the World website I chatted with one producer who admitted that he was partnered with a very large cajon manufacturer in Asia. I am currently in South America and recently found that multiple queries to visit a local cajon factory were ignored, no response at all.

I had a similar ‘no response’ to questions posed to one ‘manufacturer’ in the USA. Some of their adverts list their cajons as ‘Made in the USA’ some list them as ‘Assembled in the USA’. Their model has a stunning similarity to a model of cajon made in Thailand.

It’s impossible to actually know what is going on with possible ‘Made in’ scammers. They may simply use imported templates, jigs and methods with local wood and build cajons using local labor.  And that’s OK. Or they may import pre-cut plywood pieces, pre-made tapas and assemble the cajons with local labor. It’s also possible the completed cajon box is shipped in, the pre-build tapa is shipped in and the only part of ‘Made in ‘ that takes place is the tapa is screwed on.  It’s also possible the entire cajon is made and shipped from another country and the ‘Made in’ label is a complete fabrication.

Most of the small cajon makers I chat with are thrilled to discuss their cajons and workshops. Many small manufacturers have webpages with multiple photos showing local workers building cajons. Some have videos showing cajons being built.  My simple reaction to manufacturers that act secretive is that they have secrets.  I am not going to become an investigative reporter and try to seek out the truth. This site was made to promote local cajon makers, if I can’t easily verify that cajons are build locally using a significant amount of local raw material, I won’t list them.

The big cajon companies are big business, their only interest is to make more money by selling more cajons at greater profit margins. Expanding their business by manufacturing locally is a legitimate business practice. But there is a difference between “Made in” and “Assembled in” and as consumers we should keep this in mind,  discuss it and consider it when recommending manufacturers.

I hope that everyone reading this will support my request to all cajon manufacturers for transparency. If a manufacturer is going to tout their cajons as “Made in” or “Hecho en” or “Criado em” a particular country they should be open and honest to folks asking about the raw materials used, where fabrication of various components occurs,  which components are made from imported materials and they should support visitation of production facilities.

What can you do about questionable ‘Made in’ claims?

If you suspect a company of fraudulently using the ‘Made in’ label, here are some suggestions you might pursue. In the USA the Federal Trade Commission will investigates clams of ‘Made in the USA’ fraud, just fill out their form. Another option is to query the local Better Business Bureau and ask them to verify the business. And another option is to check with other cajon makers who live near the manufacturer in question, they may have more information or they may wish to ask questions themselves.

In other countries I’d suggest searching for the Ministry of Industries or Ministry of Trade and asking them to investigate. With skeptical officials it might be worth discussing that fraudulent ‘Made in’ labeling could be associated with import tax issues or foreign business permit issues. Cajon forums on the internet are also places to get more information and spread the word about questionable manufacturers.

Almost every country in the world is interested in touting and expanding their industries.  In many countries, foreign investors are required to partner with locals. The results can vary from active, integrated partnership to token appearances by local partners on webpages and at events. It is difficult to know the extent to which a manufactured cajon is ‘Made in’ vs ‘Assembled in’. Hopefully this blog will raise awareness that ‘Made in’ is not an absolute: prospective buyers interested in locally made cajons should ask questions about the origins of materials, location of component fabrication and the extent of foreign ownership and investment.

“Made in” vs “Assembled in” Criteria

In my mind a “Made in” cajon starts from either raw lumber or full-size sheets of plywood. While locally produced plywood would be ideal, imported plywood is OK so long as it is not pre-shaped. Ideally the wood used to brace the cajon and construct the snare system comes from the country of manufacture or a nearby country. The tapa is cut to shape and the tapa graphic are applied in the country of manufacture. The finish is applied in the country of manufacturer. All the labor involved in these steps are local residents.  To me a cajon is not made in the country if the sides, top, bottom and tapa are cut to size in another country. At that point I’d call it “Assembled in”.

Please add you opinions and thoughts in the Comments area. Happy drumming!

Buying a Cajon in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Which Cajon Brands are Available in Guayaquil?

Similar to Lima Peru there are many music stores in central Guayaquil clustered in a small area. But there the similarity ends. Ecuador has import taxes and the price of many imported instruments seemed to be considerably higher than what I would pay in the USA and or in Peru.

Nativo Percusion cajons in Instromentos Musicales JC.

Another big difference was the selection of cajons, there are not many locally made cajons available. Guayaquil is the home of Nativo Percusion yet I couldn’t find a single cajon made in Ecuador in the central stores. I queried Nativo on Facebook and they sent me the location of a small music store outside the central area with Nativo products. The store had 4 Nativo cajons, all the basic ‘Inicia’ model for $120 each. It is a good sounding, well made plywood cajon with adjustable guitar string snare wires. Later I found a couple other music stores outside the central area with Nativo Inicia cajons. Apparently nowhere in the heart of Nativo production area can you test play and purchase a high end Nativo cajon in a store. The high end models are listed on mercadolibre.com.ec with prices that look about the same as what you’d pay in Europe.

Inside a Tycoon Acrylic cajon at Ecko Music on Rumichaca 817.

It is an interesting selection of imported cajons in the central stores. Several brands imported from Asia, a few PR cajons from Peru and one SR Cajon from Brazil. There were 4 Tycoon acrylic cajons (made in Thailand) for sale. I played one a couple times, they are loud, with a lot of rattle from the adjustable guitar string snare system. The colored one is flashy and I can see where they would have a lot of stage presence in small venues. The import tax in Ecuador pushes them to about $550 each. The other imported brands, Stagg, Primer, Mirage and others, were priced in the $150 to $200 range. There were a few ‘made for kids’ cajons available that looked like Peruvian CPeru type cajons with equivalent prices.

One of two Percusion Real cajons available at the Gallardo Music store in central Guayaquil

After a couple visits to one store I spotted two PR cajons from Peru, one high on a storage shelf, the other behind a chain-link fence. The price on one was $180, which is about $80 more than you’d pay in Lima, the other $120. Both considerably less than what you’d pay in Europe or the USA for an equivalent cajon.

SR Cajon made in Brazil

The MAG Guayaquil Craft Market at the corner of Montalvo and Moreno has two stalls selling cajons including two ATempo cajons from Peru. One was $250 the other $200.

Guayaquil Craft Market, Stall #40 with 2 ATempo Cajons.

There is also a music store in the enormous ‘Guayaquil Bus Terminal’. La Victoria had a Mirage cajon ($150) and a LP Aspire Wire ($230) for sale.

Which is the best cajon to buy in Guayaquil, Ecuador?

At the low price end the basic Nativo Inicia is certainly a much better deal than the basic imported cajons available in many stores. The PR Percussion cajons are perhaps the best mid-range cajons available in Guayaquil stores. One was solid hardwood. But they may not be there long and who knows if the stock will be replenished. The ATempos are great cajons at the high end. With a bit of time and effort you could get a mid-range or high-end Nativo from their Facebook page or from website www.mecadolibre.com.ec or perhaps directly from the factory 17 km outside of Guayaquil.

The best cajon is one you sit on, play and like better than all the others you’ve played. Hopefully this blog will help you in your decision making. Check out this blog for more information on selecting the best cajon for you.

To visit the cluster of music stores in central Guayaquil just walk to the intersection of Rumichaca and V.M. Rendon streets about a block away from Parque Centenario. There’s over 10 stores in about a 2 block radius.

To visit the store recommended by Nativo (Instrumentos Musicales JC), Uber to Albocentro 1, Guayaquil and walk east down Jose Maria Roura Oxandaberro street about one block. It is right next to the Area 51 Barber shop and tatoo studio.

I did not visit every music store in Guayaquil so there could be some gems out there. And cajons in stock will certainly change with time. If you know of any stores in the Guayaquil area with other cajons please add them to the comments section of this blog.

All prices are 2018 in USD, the currency of Ecuador.

JC Music Store front in Guayaquil. They sell Nativo Percusion
Most music stores also sell sound systems.
PR cajon high on a shelf.
One of the better stocked music stores.