The Cajons of Popayan Colombia

There are at least two cajon builders in the Popayan area, Fabox Cajones and JP Cajon. Both make good instruments.  They are both innovators, their cajons often have small or sometime significant enhancements that make them unique and interesting. Both are serving the local populace and have simple, basic models as well has higher end models. A nice higher end model will run about $100 USD. These cajons would cost 2 times the asking price in Europe or the USA. Fabox Cajones are available in a few music stores in Cali and Bogota. JP Cajons are also available in Cali.

Some models of FaBox have internal baffle directly behind the top of the tapa. Some of their cajons have unique guitar string snares. And some have adjustable sound holes. They all look great and play well. The guitar snare wires are found in typical flamenco style cajons typically run vertically. FaBox snare wires are horizontal at the top which is nice as it isolates the snare sound from the bass sound.

FaBox cajon with adjustable guitar snare
FaBox cajon with adjustable guitar snare

JP Cajons also sometimes have internal baffles directly behind the top of the tapa. This isolates the sound of the snare, sending it outward from the tapa and decreases the amount of snare in the bass from the sound hole. 

There was also an un-branded cajon with an interesting snare wire modification. Occasionally cajon makers attaching the snare wires directly to the seat or to a re-enforcement along the front seat edge. It is a simple method of adding snare, but there is no way to adjust or remove the snare. In the photo below you can see that the snare wires along the bottom are being held in place with a guitar string stretched between the sides, I’d never seen this before.

Snare wires attached at the top and held in place by a guitar string.
Snare wires attached at the top and held in place by a guitar string along the bottom. This is a simple, un-branded cajon sold in the Armonia music store on Carrera 8.
Snare wires on a basic cajon model
Attaching snare wires directly to a side support is a simple but effective way to add snare.

There more than 7 music stores scattered in the colonial center of Popayan. Many carry locally made cajons and all have a selection of other percussion instruments, often made in Colombia. Prices are low and quality is good.  If you are a musician or want a locally present for a musician friend, visiting these music shops is a good way to connect with quality, local products. The following music stores with street address carry locally made cajons:

  • Serenata, Calle 5, 10-68
  • Armonia, Carrera . 9, 7-11
  • Pentragram, Calle 6, 9-22
  • Mi Guitarra, Carrera 8, 6-32
  • Melodia, Carrera 8, 6-58
Location of music stores in Popayan Colombia that carry local cajons.
Location of music stores in Popayan Colombia that carry local cajons.

When I was there in March of 2019, the high end FaBox models were probably the best cajons in Popayan. They are good plywood cajons with some interesting innovations and nice finishes. JP cajons are decent inexpensive cajons, I actually bought one in Cali and donated to the hostel I was staying in.

FaBox cajon as recorded in Serenata music store.

Buying the Best Cajon as a Gift

Planning on buying a cajon for someone, your child or a friend? What’s the best cajon to give as a birthday present or for Christmas? Regardless of the occasion, here’s my advice: don’t just buy a cajon, buy a locally made cajon AND a metronome. Here’s why:

Most cajons that show up in Internet searches and reviews are imported, made in factories far away and shipped around the planet in big container vessels. Instead of sending a plywood box full of air halfway around the globe, buy a locally made cajon, this reduces the carbon footprint of your gift and contributes to your local economy. It’s eco-friendly and a locally made cajon is a connection to the local music community. These become discussion points as the cajon is unwrapped and used. As a present a locally made cajon is more than a gift, it is a thoughtful gift.

A locally made cajon makes a thoughtful birthday present.

If possible, pair your cajon gift with a simple metronome. Most musicians will tell you, “It’s the ear, not the gear.” Perfect timing takes time and practice to develop and a metronome is critical for percussionists. If you’ve got $200 for a cajon gift, buy a $170 cajon and a $30 metronome. While it is tempting to say “Oh, she has a phone, she’ll just use a metronome app,” it won’t be as effective. A physical metronome sitting there, staring back at you, calmly says… “Here I am… 1, 2, 3, 4…. just give me a push…” A multi-function phone used as a metronome becomes more of a distraction and can easily be forgotten or overlooked.

There are hundreds of cajon models, all sound a little different. Some cajons are works of art, others are basic. A cajon player with perfect timing will make both sound good, even great. On the other hand, as Rockbox Cajon says, “A good musician can make any instrument sound good, but a good instrument can make a novice sound good or at least sound a lot better than on a poor quality instrument.” A good locally made cajon + metronome combo is the perfect cajon gift, it sets the stage right from day one.

Here’s a list of cajon makers. Find one near you, give them a call and tell them the size of your friend and your budget. They will have good, practical advice about the best cajon for your gift.

Custom cajon made from Sitka Spruce.

A Note on ‘The Best Cajon’ Reviews

Unfortunately many, perhaps most, ‘best cajon’ reviews on the Internet are probably paid promotions sponsored by global corporate cajon manufacturer(s). Some global manufacturers market their cajons under different names and reviews that appear to address many brands may in fact be touting a single manufacturer. Advice from web forums and video comment areas have related problems: fake answers and questions, grandstanding and astroturfing, these all happen even in the world of cajons. The best advice you can get about the best cajon for you will come from one-to-one conversations with real musicians and cajon builders.

I like to give cajons as wedding presents, a bit unorthodox but it will last a lifetime and when the kids arrive the couple will appreciate the long range vision.

The Music Shops of Plaza 2 de Mayo – Shopping for a Cajon in Lima Peru

There are over 115 music shops or stalls adjacent to Plaza 2 de Mayo in Lima Peru. Most are small, one room stores with big items stacked to the ceiling and small items multi-layered on glass shelves. Many shops specialize, at least partially. Some cater to brass instruments, others to percussion, keyboards, guitars or Peruvian instruments.

If you are a musician vacationing in Peru and have some extra time it’s a fun couple of hours to wander the streets and stop in a few shops. You never know when you might want to pick up an extra jawbone, zampona, quena or charango. Or a new saxophone, Martin guitar or Korg synthesizer. Almost anything, but look though I did I could not find a kettle drum or a banjo, although there was a healthy selection of sousaphones and harps.

A line of cajons stacked for sale in a music store
Cajons for sale in a music store in Plaza 2 de Mayo, Lima Peru

There are many cajon makers in Peru. The most common cajon in Plaza Mayo shops are the lower-end CPeru cajons which come in many sizes. Most CPeru cajons will sell here for less than 100 soles. They sound good but the joints may appear filled or rough and most are a bit small. Mid-range cajons such as VP Cajons will cost around 150 soles, they sound great and have some beautiful patterns dyed or painted. The high-end PR (Percusion Real) and ATempo cajons will be somewhere between 250 to 350 soles.

Jawbone percussion instruments for sale
Jawbones used as percussion instruments are found in several shops.

Some cajons will include a basic case but you may want to spring for a thickly padded case (100 soles) if you are going to put the instrument through airline baggage handling.¬† There are a few other cajon ‘brands’ for sale – Peru Percusion, RJ Cajon, ‘Peru’ and Nativ, some of which may be produced by the main manufacturers mentioned above.

Cajons and guitars for sale in Lima Peru
CPeru brand cajons come in many sizes.

Many shops sell CPeru cajons and quite a few have VP Cajons. You’ll have to look harder to find PR and ATempo cajons. In my experience no shop carried all ATempo models. So if you want a specific ATempo model you may have to look around. And some were in better condition than other.

Guitars, violins trumpets in a small music store in Lima Peru
Inside a small music store

The best way to get to the area is to use Uber. Here are two options:

Street view of Av Pierola showing many doors to small music stores
Av. Nicolas de Pierola. Each door is a small music store.

“285 Av Nicolas de Pierola” will drop you in front of a shop with a good selection of PR and ATempo models in excellent condition stored behind glass. From this drop-off walk towards the Plaza 2 de Mayo, there are shops on both sides of the street. At the traffic circle go right.

Entrances to music stores on Jiron Moquegua street

“870 Jiron Moquegua” will drop you more or less in the center of the music store area. The shops around 870 have many cajon brands and models, as do a few shops across the street. Around the corner check out the shops in and around mini-mall ‘Centro Commercial Plaza 2 de Mayo’. The Centro Commercial also has a few local food stalls and a public toilet.

Doorways to small music shops
Entrances to the Centro Commercial Plaza 2 de Mayo, Lima Peru.

Safety: I felt secure here, but this is not Miraflores or San Isidro – you won’t find a police officer on every corner. Your cell phone should stay in an inner pocket. Don’t bring more money than you need or a fancy camera. Keep a low profile. Once you step out of the music store zone the area seems less secure. If you’ve passed more than 2 non-music stores and can’t see an instrument hanging in the doorway of the next shop, turn around. Best to not wander the actual Plaza 2 de Mayo, admire it from the music store zone. Uber out of the area or walk up Av. Nicolas de Pierola to the west, away from the Plaza.

The cajita is a percussion instrument played by snapping the lid closed and by hitting the front or sides with a wooden striker.

There are many other music shops scattered around Lima, most will have cajons. There are also a few shops in Miraflores on Cantuarias street between Pje Tello and Alcanforas. They have a smaller selection of mid and high end cajons and the prices will reflect the location.

Charangos for sale in a glass case
Charangos for sale, Lima Peru

Sousaphone in a music shop window
A great place to pick up that¬† sousaphone you’ve always wanted.

Saxophones in a glass case for sale
Only a few shops had a wide selection of saxophones. This one is on Av Pierola.

Violins in a glass case for sale
Violins for sale in Plaze 2 de Mayo music store.

Colorful kit drums for sale at Plaza Mayo
Kit Drums for sale in a Plaza 2 de Mayo music store.

Music stores inside the Centro Commercial Plaza 2 del Mayo
Inside the Centro Commercial Plaza 2 del Mayo

Cajon demo in a music store
Store rep plays a cajon in a music store near the Plaza 2 de Mayo, Lima Peru