Music & Dance

Music: the Clave

The Clave is traditionally a wooden instrument consisting of 2 sticks which are struck together to make a clicking or tapping sound. Nowadays, sometimes it is a plastic hollow rectangular “box” which may be hand-held or mounted on the drum set – the timbales, cowbell, cymbal, woodblock, etc. And sometimes the clave rhythm sounds come from other sources, such as the drummer tapping the side of a drum. In Spanish, the word “clave” means a “key”, like a “key word” or the “key to a code”.

In salsa music, the clave rhytSocial-5hm establishes the key or structure to the song. Directly or indirectly, all the other instruments and the singers in the band are guided and structured by the clave rhythms. While it cannot always be heard in some salsa music, the clave’s beat always underlies the rhythmic structure of good salsa. While there are various clave rhythm patterns, the “Son Clave” is the one used in the classic, mainstream New York Caribbean-style salsa music preferred by New Yorkers for ON 2 dancing.

This clave is played within 2 measures of 4 beats each, a total of 8 beats.
But it is only tapped on certain of those 8 beats in the 2 measures.
There are two son clave rhythm patterns: the 3/2 clave and the 2/3 clave.
The 3/2 clave is struck on the following beats: 1, 2 1/2, 4, 6, 7.
The 2/3 clave is struck on the following beats: 2, 3, 5, 6 1/2, 8.

The clave creates a complex, syncopated, unevenness in the rhythmic structure that builds a tension in the group of 3 taps, and then releases or resolves that tension in the group of 2 taps, once in each of the 2 measures.
It does this by going against, and then rejoining, the regular 8 beats, a little like one instrument playing in 4/4 time, and another playing in 3/4 time simultaneously.

This syncopation fascinates and inspires those more experienced ON 2 dancers who are particularly in tune to the music, and affects the way they feel and move when they have reached the level of the dance where they are truly “dancing in the music”. You may have heard the expression “Dancing on Clave” to describe New York On 2 mambo. This needs some clarification. Actually, this is a loose expression to mean that the clave contributes to the 8 beat rhythmic structure of salsa, and also effects how we feel and move to the music. But we do not literally step to ALL the beats that the clave instrument taps out.

For example, the 2/3 clave instrument taps out 2, 3, 5, 6 1/2, 8, while we step on 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7.
So we are only stepping on the 2, 3 and 5 taps of the 2/3 clave.

And the 3/2 clave taps out 1, 2 1/2, 4, 6, 7, while we step on 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7.
So we only step on the 1, 6, and 7 of the 3/2 clave.

As an example of how the clave makes us feel and move, we break on 2 and 6, but the 6 break feels much more emphatic and part of the body than does the 2 break when we are dancing to a song with a 3/2 clave, because the 6 break is “On Clave”, at least when it’s audible in the music. In contrast, when the song we are dancing to has a clear 2/3 clave structure, the 2 break feels stronger than the 6 break. Many intermediate and advanced ON 2 dancers feel this difference, particularly those who are closely attuned to the music.

The clave always has one measure with 2 beats, and one measure with 3 beats.

The 2/3 clave has 2 beats in the first measure, and 3 beats in the second measure.

The 3/2 clave has 3 beats in the first measure, and 2 beats in the second measure.

It is in the nature of the clave rhythmic structure that the 2 beats always stand out more emphatically than the 3 beats.
That is, they feel stronger in the rhythm. Partly this is because the 2 beats resolve the syncopated unevenness or tension of the 3 beats.

When we are breaking on 2 and 6, we are actually changing our body direction in conjunction with the strongest rhythmic emphasis in the clave’s beat.
So although we don’t literally step on every clave beat, we do make a major body movement (a change of direction) on the major beat of the clave, the 2 beat which resolves the tension. It is in this sense that we “dance on clave”. This style of dancing accents the clave’s emphasis on the 2 in the way we move our bodies in the dance. Other timings, such as breaking on 1 or 3, do not accent the clave’s emphasis on the 2 in this way. There is another use of the word “clave” you may hear.

“Finding the clave” – referring to when we take our first step, on the 1: “finding the clave” in this usage means finding the first beat of the 8 beat measure. Also, you may hear someone describe a DJ “mixing the songs on the clave” – This usage means going from one salsa song to the next keeping the tempo/timing of the 8 beats. Both of these uses of the “the clave” have to do with the regular 8 beats, and do not literally refer to the rhythms created by the tapping of the clave instrument.

I would like to express my thanks to Jimmy Anton, Addie Diaz, Carlos Koenig, Frankie Martinez and Eddie Torres, for their help in clarifying and putting into words the role of this fascinating and complex rhythm instrument, the clave, and how it forms a foundation unique to salsa and ON 2 mambo dancing. And also my thanks to Manny Siverio, host of SalsaWeb.com/NY , for launching us into trying to explain the timing and the clave in a way that would be helpful to the viewers of our two web sites.

Article Copyright © 2000 Steve Shaw from: www.salsanewyork.com/ourdancemusic.htC Youtube Video of 2-3 and 3-2 Clave from Dance Papi.

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