What Are The Differences Between Cajon & Djembe?

African percussion instruments have become very popular in current Western musical circles. Two of these instruments (one of which didn't originate from Africa but was designed by enslaved Africans) are the djembe and the cajon. Despite their resemblances, the cajon and djembe are very dissimilar in terms of structure and tone.

What are the differences between Cajon and Djembe? The differences between cajon and djembe are:

  • Djembes have drumheads made of skin, while cajons have no drumhead.
  • Djembes are louder and have a deeper tone than cajons.
  • Cajons can be played with kick pedals, whereas djembes mostly can't.
  • Djembes and cajons are played in different positions.

In this article, we'll be exploring the cajon and the djembe while also elaborating on some similarities and differences between them.

Related articles:
Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn How To Play Cajon
Top 9 Best Cajón Brands On The Market

The Background Of Cajon And Djembe

Africa has been a hotbed for percussion instruments since the earliest days. While the cajon is not technically African, it carries much of the legacy of older African drums.

Although both instruments are peripherally related, they have starkly different backgrounds and different justifications for their existence. Let's disclose a bit of their history and main characteristics:

Background Of The Djembe

The djembe originated in Western Africa, and it is said to be about 800 years old. It may have been created by the Mandé people at the time of the Mali Empire, which encompassed modern-day Mali, Senegal, northern Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, western Niger, Ghana, and Ivory Coast.

The djembe has often been associated with autochthonous religious practices. It was traditionally said that it contained three spirits: Of the tree from which the goblet was made, the animal whose skin is struck, and the man who cut the tree or carved it.

The djembe was not known outside African music even as late as the 1950s. It has been progressively incorporated into many world music and popular music outlets during the latter part of the 20th century.

Djembes come in various sizes, but the most common djembes range between 23.25″ for adults and 12-15″ for children. Their tone is very deep, but you may get a wide range of expressions depending on how you shape your hand and the spot being struck.

Background Of The Cajon

Despite the cajon's austere appearance, it's not a very old instrument. Rather, it originated mostly by accident, presumably in Colonial Peru.

At that point in history, enslaved Africans were forbidden to play their traditional drums for their festivities. This led them to find alternative objects to play. They would often rely on fruit crates as alternatives.

With time, these crates were endowed with more acoustic properties and were starting to be utilized in more popular music forms. Nowadays, cajons are a staple in Peruvian waltz and play an important role in Peruvian culture.

The cajon has also become an important device in flamenco music. Paco De Lucia brought the instrument back to Spain after discovering it on his South American tour in 1977. He bought it from Peruvian singer-songwriter Caitro Soto for around 12,000 pesetas (equivalent to approximately $75 today) and gave it to his percussionist so that he may use it in subsequent gigs.

Events strikingly similar to those that transpired in Colonial Peru occurred during the first days of Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba in the early 1960s.

Castro's dissenters would play music loaded with traditional percussion instruments as a sign of protest. In retaliation, Castro banned street music and ordered police raids to arrest anyone who would infringe this mandate. As a response, dissenters would use boxes, fruit crates, and drawers as drums to avoid detection by law enforcement agents.

The cajon (which means “box” in Spanish) remains, in essence, a crate, but with some acoustic enhancements, such as the resonance hole at the rear for sound projection. Inside, you'll normally find snares, which add some rattling effects.

The Similarities Between Cajon And Djembe

While there are not that many shared traits between the cajon and djembe (apart from their status as percussion instruments), it's worth pointing out the following:

  • Both instruments are made with hardwood, though varying in kind.
  • Both instruments are largely played bare-handed, using various parts of the hand for different results.
  • Both the djembe and the cajon can be played with brushes and drumsticks.
  • As with essentially any type of drum, they both deliver bassier and more resounding sounds when played at the center, while their borders produce more treble-heavy beats.
  • Both instruments are mainly niche instruments that are mostly found in World and Latin music ensembles. Djembes are, naturally, also heard in African folk music.

The Differences Between Cajon And Djembe

Let's move on to pin the differences between the cajon and djembe. We'll discuss these differences in the same order as they were exposed at the beginning of this article.

Difference 1: Design

At first glance, differences in design should be fairly obvious, starting with the shape. The djembe has a goblet-like chassis, while the cajon is essentially a square box with a hole at the back.

But distinctions can also be found in the materials utilized. The type of wood employed for most professional djembes is a kind of African hardwood that's often carved with some figures that could or could not have religious connotations. The cajon, on the other hand, is often built using various kinds of locally sourced plywood.

The most significant difference in terms of materials is that the djembe also comes with a type of goat rawhide drumhead fastened at the instrument's top by various ropes extending over to the base, which, in turn, are used to tune the instrument. For this reason, the djembe is categorized as a membranophone, an instrument that produces sound through a vibrating membrane.

By contrast, cajons are largely wooden, with some accessories optionally incorporated for additional effects, such as guitar or piano strings and tambourine cymbals.

Difference 2: Sound

The sounds of both instruments are also noticeably distinct. Djembes (especially large ones) have more reverberation and better projection, which makes them ideal for outdoor gigs. Their tone is also very booming and deep. In addition, it's fairly easy to aim for a “rim shot” with djembes, creating the opportunity for more expressive playing.

Cajons, owing to their all-wood setup, are sharper in tone and a bit drier. Nevertheless, they have a wide dynamic range and can produce sounds closer to a kick/snare setup. The addition of cymbals also adds a “drumkit” feel to the cajon that the djembe may not be able to emulate.

Whether any of these instruments can replace the traditional drum set is a matter of dispute, but many point to the cajon as the closest contender for drum kit replacement in small, enclosed venues.

Difference 3: Accessories

The cajon has suffered many modifications since it was adopted as a musical instrument. Apart from the inclusion of the various modifiers mentioned earlier, many cajon enthusiasts and sellers have marketed entire kits for it, some of which include kick pedals.

In some instances, cajons would be used as a replacement for kick drums, with the instruments' “face” or playable surface facing towards instead of away from the player, as it's usually the case. In other instances, cajons would be played traditionally, with an inverted kick pedal mechanism that would create an additional beat as the performer strikes the surrounding area with the hands.

Djembes are a bit more tricky because of the goat hide. The pedal would likely end up tearing the skin apart with little effort. Also, some kick pedals would struggle with the djembe's odd shape.

There are some instances of djembe-shaped bass drums, such as this “DjemBass” system (link to check the price at Steve Weiss Music), which consists of a fibreglass djembe with a synthetic drumhead and a neoprene disc inside that adds another sound option.

As stated previously, both djembes and cajons can be played with drumsticks and brushes. Jen Lowe's video shows us how djembes sound with brushes. You may also find an example of what a cajon sounds like with brushes in this video.

Difference 4: Playing Method

Djembes are played similarly to many other membranophones. The drumhead is your “playable surface” and is always found at the top of the instrument. You would play facing the drum, with the palms facing downwards.

Cajons are played a bit differently. Many players would sit over the instrument and strike its face, situated between the legs and facing away from them. When playing the cajon, your hands ought to be oriented with the fingers pointing slightly downwards and the palms facing your body.

To sit on the cajon comfortably, you should use a “cajon throne” such as the Latin Percussion LP1445 (link to check the price on Amazon).

Read How Cajons Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

Recent Posts