Mi Cajones

Ryan calls it a “cajon.” The rest of us call it “the box.”

Chris and I first spotted young Ryan Vaughn bangin’ on the box at Rockwood Music Hall a few years ago. It wasn’t just the box that impressed, though, it was his use of percussion. I had recently seen Aimee Mann perform, and had been impressed by her drummer’s use of shakers, tambourine, and hand drums; he added color and texture and shape to things, while still holding the low end together.

Ryan (who was performing with singer/songwriter Jill Stevenson, as I recall) did the same. So I gave him my card.

Flash forward. Young Mr. Vaughn is in deep with the whole LES crowd. He’s playing with Casey and Chris and The Heavyweights and Sundown. In fact, he plays damned near every night. Because everyone loves him. Because he’s a good kid. Did I mention I was in high school when he was born?

First, though, a word form our sponsor. The cajon is the most widely used Afro-Peruvian musical instrument in the 20th century. It’s a five-sided box of half to three quarter inch thick wood with a thin sheet of plywood was nailed on as the sixth side which acts as the striking surface or head. A sound hole was cut on the back side opposite the head or tapa.

Fast forward to Monday night. My plane landed at four o’clock, I made it to my apartment at five o’clock, and I was rehearsing with the band at eight o’clock. In the intervening five days since Chris and I’d last spoke, he and the guys had thrown out the set list. “Too many covers,” they said. “You should sing each other’s songs,” they said.

Here’s the thing. My songs are pretty straight: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge — sometimes solo! — chorus chorus. Chris’, though, are, like, math equations. Nothing repeats. In country music, they’d call his songs “crooked.” I’d call ’em “difficult to learn” or “a bitch,” especially on a few hours sleep after a few states of travel.

So we’re rehearsing one of Chris’ groovier tunes, “Every Minute.” And there’s no way I can a) figure out b) remember the chords. So someone throws out the idea that I should play the box.

Now, you should know by know that every singer really wishes he was a drummer.

Fast forward — again — to last night. Chris and I have two guitars between us, on account of the fact that my Martin has a chronic electronic problem. In the third to last tune, Chris breaks a string. Hmmmm. So I just sing — no strumming! — on “Dear Elizabeth.”

Now, the other thing you should know is that every singer/songwriter would far prefer being just a singer. At least I would. In fact, I’d told Chris so on Monday night.

“One of these days,” he told me, “We’ll play a gig where all you do is sing.”

Back to last night. We’re havin’ a ball. We’re laughin’ and tellin’ jokes and bein’ super casual and comfortable. Tony hits me in the head with the mic stand. Everything’s great! Then Chris breaks the string. So I’m guitarless. And we have to do our big “Wonderwall” finish. So I’m preppin’ my “Jesus pose,” and gettin’ all Bon Jovi on everyone — you know, gettin’ ’em to sing along. And it comes time for Chris’ solo at the end, where normally he and I would kind of jam out a little bit (I mean, as much as a guy like me who knows ten chords can jam). But I’m guitarless. So…

So I climb on top of the cajon, and whack that sucker. And Chris is feelin’ it cuz he gets all quiet and gives me space to solo on the thing. Which is kind of hilarious, cuz as much as I want to be a drummer, I’m a singer.

But it works. And we kill it. And, moreover, we have a ball.

Which it seems to me is the whole idea.

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