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Clave : The Key to Salsa

The clave (pronounced KLA-vey) refers to the rhythmic pattern found in a variety of Latin American musical styles as well as the instrument that is often used to make the sound. In Spanish, clave means key, code or clef. It refers to both a musical signature and a key or code that underlies the complexity of Latin American rhythms. Though used in a variety of Latin as well as non-Latin music genres, it is most prominently featured in Salsa.

The term clave may come from clavija, meaning wooden peg. This alludes to the appearance of the instruments that play the clave rhythm: two wooden sticks that are struck together. One peg, the hemba, is held in a cupped hand and produces a low pitched sound. The other, the macho, strikes the hemba to produce a high pitched sound. The cupping of the hand that holds the hemba amplifies the sound that is produced. Although the clave rhythm is often played by the claves, it may also be kept by another instrument or be implied but not played. However, Latin musicians still maintain a feel or sense of the clave rhythm even when it is not played by an instrument.

The clave rhythm, though distinctive as a Latin music concept, belies the African heritage of Salsa and other Latin American musical genres. The clave originated from the 12/8 pattern of African bell rhythm. After making its way to the Caribbean, however, the rhythm was simplified to make it more accessible and familiar to European musicians and audiences. The beats were spread out over more bars, slowing the music and allowing new instruments to play the rhythm as well. Other aspects of the African bell pattern also evolved, creating a distinct rhythmical concept known as son clave, named after the Cuban music and dance of the same name. The son clave is the basis of Rumba, Mambo, Cha-cha-cha and Salsa.

Today’s clave is a two-measure pattern that acts as a call and response, with the first measure creating tension and the second measure providing a resolution. This creates an exciting pulsation that gives Latin music incredible drive and flavor. The clave can appear in two forms: the forward clave that plays three beats in the first measure and two in the second (3-2), and the reverse clave that inverts this pattern (2-3). The phrasing and accenting of the melody in a song determines which clave will be played. Typically, the clave played (forward or reverse) will not change within a single song, but recently more musicians have begun experimenting with changing the “direction” of the clave (from 3-2 to 2-3, for example) within a single song.

Clave rhythms are most evident in Salsa music, where musicians often clearly play the clave rhythm and sometimes feature it at the beginning of songs. The clave rhythm has also been part of an ongoing debate within the Salsa dancing community about when to “break” in the music. Dancers may “break” (step back or forward in the basic step) “on the 1” or “on the 2.” Dancing “on the 2” is considered by many to be more consistent with the clave rhythm that underlies salsa and is called “dancing with the clave.” Despite its prominence within Salsa, the clave can also be heard in Brazilian music as well as Rock & Roll and Jazz.

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