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Lewi Customs

The Drum Shop by Sean Mitchell // June 19 2012
Lewi Customs

Josef, can you give us a bit of a history about the cajón? 

There isn’t as much history to find as you would think. Well not as many details as I would like, but here’s the gist of all. 

The beginning of the cajón, (pronounced Ka-hone) like most things is vague at best. It is said that slaves of African origin, specifically the western and central regions, were brought by boat to Peru (Lima) in the 16th and 17th centuries. Forbidden to use their traditional instruments, simple crates, drawers, spoons and any other items found were substituted for musical instrumentation. It is possible in which during this time there were "contemporary Spanish colonial bans on music." Playing any music would get one beaten, incarcerated or even brutally killed. A cajón could easily turn into a seat or box to carry goods, to disguise the act of playing music. The cajón is the modern descendent of an instrument made from that simple wooden box, drawer or Caja. From here the history seems to fade out a little until the mid-1960s. 

Two groups set the standards for contemporary black music in Peru. One was the seminal group Cumanana, founded by Nicomedes Santa Cruz and which disbanded in the ’70s, and the other is Perú Negro. In 1969, Ronaldo Campos was playing cajón in a Lima tourist restaurant. With encouragement from the restaurant proprietor, Campos adapted his repertoire to emphasize black music, and Perú Negro was born. Soon after, Perú Negro won the grand prize at the Hispano-American festival of song and dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and overnight became a national treasure in Peru. 

Later in the 1970s, a Peruvian composer and cajón master, Carlos Caitro Soto, gave a cajón as a present to Spanish guitarist, Paco de Lucía, during one of his visits to Peru. De Lucía liked the sounds of this instrument so much that before leaving the country he bought a second cajón. Later he introduced the cajón to flamenco music. Partial credit for the performance evolution of black Peruvian music goes to a Cuban drummer named Jesus “El Niño” Nicasio, who performed in Peru in the early ’50s. El Niño and Campos played together in Cumanana, where they incorporated Cuban conga and bongo into black Peruvian music. El Niño invented the first drum patterns used for this genre. 

Today, the cajón is heard widely in Andean, Cuban, Peruvian and flamenco music styles. It has begun the crossover into many other modern and contemporary forms of music. Its basic structure consists of six sides usually made of plywood or hardwoods of varied thickness from .25"-.75" and with at least one hole cut into a side or back. Feet or risers are not uncommon. The face is of thinner stock and is almost always screwed to the body front allowing the player adjustments of the sound. The overall dimensions also vary as to create the different sound. Some cajóns have wire stretched across the inside of the face to simulate a snare, while others may have actual snares or even miniature symbols, wire bundles, etc. 

How did it come to pass that you wanted to build cajóns? 

They happened to find me, or rather came into my life at a time when my passions for woodworking and fabrication began to reach an artisan scale. I had for years been designing, repairing and restoring instruments and furnishings of all kinds. One day a long-time local Afro/Peruvian percussionist approached me to rebuild a damaged instrument of his that he had held from the late 1960s. I accepted the project and after thoroughly inspecting and refurbishing this piece I began into a “further suggested” design. It was thereafter, my own interpretations were implemented into this instrument. When the percussionist had returned for his cajón, he had noticed some of my works and became interested in playing them. Excited at all the tones, resonate points and decay, he commissioned me to build a piece that later became the first AshiCajón™. The one then turned into a trio and then other local artists began to call for one of their own. 

Let’s talk about your cajón lines. What products do you feature and can you tell me a bit about each one? 

(Laughing) You have time for this? Where do I begin? I guess the first thing, my lines are constantly growing and exploring new progressive concepts in acoustical and dynamic sounds. The base groups at this point are: La Caja Sencilla, La Caja Sencilla Grandé, Trivium™ Class- Released May2012, El Arco™ Niño, El Arco™ de Bateria, AshiCajon™, Criterion™ Class-Scheduled release August 2012. 

La Caja Sencilla is just that: “a simple box.” The difference here is the tapered faces and sides. This allows for easier playing and a wider range of variable tones while playing up and down the tapas (playing face). The opposing tapas works both as a playing face and resonating head, not unlike that of a common kit drum. 

La Caja Sencilla Grandé is mostly identical to its sister only on a larger scale. This style was created to cater to the “big and tall” percussionist in the industry. Too often these artist and multi-percussionist out there wanted to play the cajón, but just couldn’t get comfortable sitting down on a toaster sized box. This model holds tremendous amounts of variable tones but needs those up scaled palms to deliver the potential. 

Trivium™ Class was the latest release which just premiered at the Chicago Drum Show 2012 this May, in honor of the fallen builder Denis L. Stauffer. This model is based off of the La Caja Sencilla skeletal frame, but is ported by two sets of three chrome resonators. It increases the high end tones and volume proving to be an exceptional lead accompaniment/soloist cajón. 

El Arco™ Niño is the one and only arched back six sided cajón. The idea behind this feature is allowing for the sound waves to speed up within the body. This causes a dramatic increase in the decay. The benefit to this instrument is playing in large numbers. The increased decay allows for multiple players to create numerous rhythms without becoming mushy or over toned. 

El Arco™ de Bateria was originally designed with the multi-percussionist and kit players in mind. The main feature here is a dual front tapas and a tight line rear resonate head. Each of the faces may hold up to five distinctive variable tones allowing for a full range of play in one cajón. It is definitely an expansive piece that takes some practice before realizing its full potential. 

AshiCajón™ is the world’s only true standing cajón. I say this on account of it is the only cajón I know of that stands approximately 1030mm (41.625") tall. This is a full sized conga/ashiko/cajón. These drums have on average five variable tones. The small range heads like the quinto and requinto hold a minimum of 3-4 variable tones. 

All of the cajóns do have the options of now three very different snare bodies. I say options only because some players may prefer to have some drums without a snare. The styles offered are: Lewi® snare brush assembly for a low full extended shatter; Lewi® Flamenco las Esquinas snare wire assembly for a fast, punchy snare in a high register; or the new Lewi® al Tanto snare assembly for a long controlled rasps and player optional load patterns for personal taste adjustments. 

Tapa Volar™ as a snare throw off is yet another option available, but you can see this and more to come like the Raventone™ tapas generations 1-6 in the Spec’s area of our website www.cajondrumz.com as the information gets posted. 

You have some very unique shapes. How have you developed your lines over the years? 

Well, this will come as a strange response to most people, but honestly the incipience of my designs comes in a dream state. I may, in an off moment of the day, find a pattern in the saw dust on floor or even an accidental flash of light in eyes leaving that semi-permanent blip, or a short lucid moment of awareness from watching the limbs of the tress sway in the breeze. From there, I build and build and build again and again until the form shows itself to me. Once the idea has set in my head, I cannot stop until it’s done, and done right. I know it may sound strange, but after the designs started to work and sound so incredible, I started to listen and look a little closer. 

After the shell bodies are created, then comes the time to adjust and feel out the tapas. This completely changes with all the Raventone™ heads. 

The help from my ‘First of Family’ endorsers/artists have helped incredibly to modify and tighten various areas of construct. This is the greatest benefit to having such a wide variety of artists using my products. Getting a glimpse of what each artist may like better for playing really changes the creation of each drum.

What are the best woods for making cajóns and why? 

This is a discussion that can last days, weeks or even a lifetime. I suppose to sum it up as swiftly as I can I would say musical grade tonal woods. I have spent extended time building with exotic and domestic hardwood and softwood species from all over the world. What it all comes down to is knowing and understanding the grains of the wood.

One of my favorites is Goncalo. The tonal qualities of this lumber are exceptional, not to mention the looks can be absolutely amazing! I’ve been blessed with an established connection with a direct owner of properties in South America where I am able to get my hands on some of the best quality lumber in the world. Especially when this wood is mostly becoming extinct by clear cropping and theft, this supplier is a sustainable source. The sad part of this is that when my supply is used up, it may be some time before I can get more. So I have limited editions released with this specie, and it goes quick. 

Can a customer order a completly custom job? 

Yes. Absolutely, I accept custom projects almost year ‘round. I am a complete custom fabricator, so the sky is the limit. Currently an additional tool is in process of being added to capabilities of our shop. I can’t say much other than it will change the term “custom” completely. Just in case it wasn’t heard the first time… custom means anything can be made here at Lewi® Custom. 

Can you introduce us to your team?

The list is beginning to change up these days as our national sales team is developing. I will have six regional sales reps over the country and one national advisor here in Michigan. Stay tuned for more on that. As far as the shop goes, I usually have two apprentices that help me keep up with demands and several part-time to assist in the other areas like shipping and material handling. My lead apprentice has begun his transitioning into another profession (Bummer). He has been working with me about 12 years now and will certainly be missed. Ignacio is my new apprentice to the family this year but shows a great deal of promise and potential. 

Where are you located? 

I am in the Mitten of the States! The Great Lakes State: Rochester, Michigan, USA. Mostly referred to as the Motor City! 

Who are some of the players who are playing these cajóns? 

Our First of Family as I call ‘em:

  • Blair Sinta – Studio and performing artist (Mellissa Etheridge/Pedestrian)
  • Carlos Skinfill – professional endorser, studio artist
  • Daniel Sadownick – Studio and performing artist (Taylor Swift)
  • Ron Sikes – Performing artist, educator, conductor (Funky Butt Brass Band & Gumbohead)
  • Matt Murphy – Studio artist, clinician
  • Eddie Dalton – Studio artist, clinician and educator
  • Mike Buckingham – Performing artist with Kick (Nova Scotia)
  • Aaron Edgar – Clinician/ educator (Winnipeg)
  • Ross Chapman – Performing artist (Motor City Wranglers) 

How can a potential artist get in touch with you about endorsements? 

As of now I am running the artist relations personally. There is a link on our website at the bottom of the “Artists” page—http://www.cajondrumz.com/Endorsershome.html—for a direct endorsement inquiry. Or artist may email me directly at lewicustom@cajondrumz.com with a press release and/or descript bio for review. 

How can one purchase a Lewi® Custom? Are you a direct market company or can we get theses in retail stores? 

We were only a direct market company for a while. You may still contact the sales department at sales@cajondrumz.com for any items shown online, but our ecommerce has been placed on hold until further negotiations with dealer networks are settled. This year starts the beginning of retail placements, so you may find some near you soon, but if not, you’ll have to start buggin’ your local retailers! 

What does the future hold for Lewi® Customs? 

The designs now being perfected have come into their own as individual classes, like the Trivium™ Class released this last month. The next release will be the Criterion™ Class! After a lengthy build and trial period this will offer a new shell design and the al tanto snare body system to add to the mix. You should expect the release early August 2012. Other releases are set for the Raventone™ heads generations 4-6. These will set a new apogee or standard for tapas in the industry. Combining these tapas, an ever expanding design/construction along with a redefining of the hybrid designs and creations of cybrid… I wish I could only share more with you. You’ll just have to stay tuned for what’s happening and who else will be playing the new Lewi® Custom cajóns!



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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