Kluang Series: Meet Derek Tan, Founder Of Timoz
The cajon originates from Peru, South America, and it’s their national instrument. Legend has it that when the African slaves were brought to South America, their instruments were taken away from them to disable them from secretly communicating through drums. But the Africans took the fishing crates and turned them upside down, and that became their instrument of communication. Thus, the original cajon only has bass. Today, cajons have added snares to give the instrument a drum-like function.
In Malaysia, one of the leading cajon manufacturers is Timoz. Founded by Derek Tan, the workshop is based in Kluang where cajons of different types and sizes are produced. Songs & Stories duo, Gina Yap Lai Yoong and Juwita Suwito, were privileged to be given a tour around the workshop to learn more about cajon making. Here’s a snippet of their chat with Derek.
S&S: What started you on this journey of cajon manufacturing?
I used to gig in KL as a guitarist. My drummer would always bring his drumset around. It was a good thing that he drove a four-wheel drive, so he could load everything into his vehicle. But to take it out, tune, play and put it back required a time. So I thought, okay, there has to be something smaller and lighter.
Then I saw the Malaysian band 1a.m. who brought a small little box. I asked them what it was. I played it and they told me that it was a cajon. So I thought, okay, I will make my own. Then I started experimenting and made my first cajon.
S&S: It’s not every day that someone just starts making their own instruments. We generally only hear about it happening in villages when the folks can’t afford to buy instruments. So how did you start? Did you go looking for wood, or how?
Kind of like that, yes. A friend’s father worked in a sawmill. So I asked them if I could get some wood. Then I experimented and created my own. I played it and thought the sound could be improved. Slowly, I made more cajons and passed them to different friends – some percussionist friends. They played the cajons and said, “Hey, the cajons you make sound good. Why don’t you start a business?” I prayed about it and decided to move into this business.
S&S: What were you doing before this?
I was working in an IT company as an engineer. Back then, my boss had a vision. His vision in starting a company was to create jobs to boost the economy. After working with him for five years, I realised that not everyone can join his company. If they don’t have an engineering or IT degree, it would be tough for them.
I felt God impressing upon me to start something, a business, where it is possible to give to those in poverty a job and skill, hope and dignity, to break the cycle of poverty. Instead of watching them bum around, being an alcoholic, being unemployed and unemployable just because they don’t have the skills to be hired, I thought perhaps I can teach them how to make cajons after I have learnt how to make them.
So Timoz is a business where I can employ people with no skill and upward mobility. I give them a job and a life skill. I believe in business as a mission and this is it for me.
S&S: But why cajon when it could be any other instrument?
This is easier to make. It’s technically harder to teach people how to make a guitar or violin. That’s why I start with a cajon. I also do other things like furniture. Now, we are venturing into producing speakers. So it’s carpentry as a skill and job that I can provide for others.
S&S: So how did you learn to make a cajon? Did you talk to a drummer to find out what’s needed, or are there any technical skills required?
As a musician, I thought to myself – I would like a good bass and snare, and there must be a separation between the two. I went around and played many different cajons. I went to Singapore to hear some of the imported branded cajons from Europe. Some of them sounded good but they were really expensive. They could easily cost about SGD 700 or 600 Euro, which is out of reach for most Malaysians. It inspired me to build good sounding and on-par cajons, but I want to sell them at as low a price as possible.
Since Malaysia has good woods, I wanted to try producing cajons using Malaysian woods and started experimenting with different types – listening to the sounds the wood produces with different mixes and matches.
S&S: The nice-sounding cajons you found, did you actually take them apart to see what’s inside?
Nope. Basically, I know a cajon is a playing surface that resonates with snares beneath it. The rest was mainly research and development, trial and error, on my end. As an engineer, I think like one as I consider the distance of the snares from the surface, the size of the hole, the placement and positioning, and stuff like that in creating a cajon. I sat down and calculated all this in creating our blueprint.
Some people think that a cajon is just a box, you just put everything together and voilà! Yes, everyone can do that but how the sound turns out marks the difference. There’s a lot of trial and error before the production of the final product. Especially when we include guitar strings inside to create the snares. By the way, the original cajon from Peru didn’t have snares. When it was brought to Spain, they added guitar strings inside to create the snares. Precision is required to make sure the snares sound good.
S&S: Do guitar strings mean that you can actually tune a cajon?
I do tune a cajon. I will adjust the angle of the snares on the front face, including the distance from the surface. The tightening and loosening of the screws also affect the pitch of the cajon.
S&S: Is there a standard tuning for a cajon?
No, there’s no standard. It’s about what a person wants.
S&S: When you initially started in 2010, not many people knew about the cajon. What about now?
It’s still a street instrument but it is getting more and more mainstream. This is because the cajon is probably the only percussion that sounds the closest to a drumset. It has bass and snares. All the other percussions do not have snares.
Nowadays, most acoustic gigs would be using a cajon and guitar. Musicians, when they see a cajon and play it, especially drummers, immediately a lightbulb goes on in their head – I don’t need to bring a huge heavy drumset around anymore. I just need to bring a little cajon.
And that’s how cajon awareness has been growing. Cajon playing was also quite a trend in the past few years by musicians around the world. So people started seeing cajons being played on music videos as well.
S&S: Do you see Malaysia becoming a cajon producer for the region, or even the world? Have you begun exporting your cajons?
I do export to Singapore. That aside, I’ve been getting inquiries from a few places but shipping is pricey. Most people hear Timoz cajons being played either live or through a video on the Internet, and they like the sound. But the shipping price can easily be 60-100% of the cajon price, unless they take the smaller options like the tablet cajon. Shipping is charged according to volume metric weight. So the cajon can be 6kg in weight, but the dimension measurement of the cajon comes into play. This is beyond our control.
So I’m considering creating a foldable/collapsible cajon, then it will be cheaper to ship out. I believe that most musicians are particular about sound and a collapsible cajon will not sound as good as a fully-built cajon. It won’t be as solid. That’s why I am still going through the research and development process for this idea.
For more information about Timoz and their cajons, head over to https://timozmusic.com/.
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