Question: Every time I speak to a musician about clave, I feel completely lost. I hardly ever hear the clave in salsa songs, so do I need to know anything about it as a dancer?
Dancing is such a personal thing. It's really up to each individual to decide how much they want to know about the music they are dancing to. If you do want to know about clave, there's quite a lot to know. But for now, let's focus on the aspects that would be most relevant to dancers...
What is Clave?
Clave is a percussive African rhythmic pattern which was developed in Cuba. It serves as the pulse of most Afro-Cuban music. The clave rhythm is played by hitting two sticks (called claves) together. There are three main types of clave: son clave, rumba clave, and 6/8 clave. Salsa dancers are most concerned with son clave. Son clave is the rhythmic heartbeat of salsa music. All of the core pieces of salsa rhythm are derived from the clave in some way. It should also be noted that rumba clave is used in Guaguanco. But we will keep our focus squarely on son clave.
Clave as a Musical Element
To really understand clave in salsa music, it is important to understand some very basic music theory. Dancers tend to think of salsa in terms of 8 beats, or a "basic", or an "8-count". Musically, however, almost all salsa music is in 4/4 time. The relevant information for a dancer is that one measure or "bar" of music contains four beats. Therefore, while a dancer is thinking "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8", a like-minded musician might be thinking " 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4". Clave is a syncopated rhythm. Syncopation simply involves emphasis on "back beats" or beats which are normally unstressed. Another form of syncopation can involve NOT emphasizing strong beats which are normally stressed. There are endless ways to create syncopation in music. For salsa, most of the syncopation will be apparent by counting the "and's" of each beat. So in the simplest of syncopated rhythms, an 8-count would be counted "1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 &". It is important to note that the numbers fall in the same places as the normal 8-count - the "and's" simply fall in between beats. Remember that in musical terms, the 8-count is really two sets of four.
The clave rhythmic pattern spans an entire 8-count, or two bars of music. The two bars can be in any order. One bar contains two strikes of the clave while the other contains three. Although the two bars are codependent, they should be examined independently. Each of the two bars in the clave pattern is called a side of the clave. There is a "two side" and a "three side". The two side involves striking the claves on the second and third beats of the bar ([1 & X & X & 4 &]). Because there are no strikes on the "&" beats, it can be determined that the two side of the clave is not syncopated. The notation can be simplified to [1 X X 4]. The three side of the clave is more complicated. The strikes fall on the first beat, between the second and third beats, and on the fourth beat ([X & 2 X 3 & X &]). This rhythmic notation cannot be simplified because there is a strike on one of the "&" beats.
The two side and the three side of clave combine to form the actual pattern. In musical terms, the two bars of four beats appear one after the other. However, recall that dancers think of the two bars as one eight-count. Therefore, if the three side were followed by the two side, we would have [X & 2 X 3 & X & 5 & X & X & 8 &].
Determining Clave Direction
It is important to recognize that clave direction is more of a musical phenomenon than a musical element. Clave has two directions: 3-2 and 2-3. In 3-2 clave, the 3 side precedes the 2 side. The opposite is true for 2-3 clave. 3-2 clave is illustrated at the end of the previous section. For clarity, 2-3 clave in 8-count would be [1 & X & X & 4 & X & 6 X 7 & X &] (the exact reverse of 3-2 clave).
One crucial but widely unknown fact is that clave alone has no direction! To illustrate this, imagine a salsa song consisting of only clave. Now imagine the song lasts for 26 minutes and you did not hear the beginning. How would you know which side of the clave came first? It doesn't really matter. Even if you heard the beginning of the song and heard that the three side came first, you would be incorrect to call the pattern 3-2 clave. In fact, in charanga (one of the earlier Cuban forms of salsa), even 2-3 clave begins with the three side. With no other instruments present, the clave is neither 2-3 nor 3-2. It is only clave. What can be said, however, is that each side of the clave has a distinct function. The three side of the clave uses its syncopation to build tension and anticipation in the music. The two side is more relaxed and serves to release the tension and provide resolution. So if we consider an 8-count to be a phrase, a song in 2-3 clave builds a phrase gradually to a climax while anticipating the next phrase. A song in 3-2 clave tends to start the phrase strong and coast into the next phrase. This will become apparent as instruments are stacked on top of the claves.
So what actually gives clave direction? Clave direction is determined by the melody. Again, if musical phrasing is considered, there is a natural "flow" in a song. If you were to pick a section of a song you know (not the beginning) and start to hum the tune, you are almost guaranteed to start at the beginning of a phrase. That is how the mind processes music. In fact, if phrasing is not identifiable, music tends to be interpreted as avant-garde at best... noise at worst. Indeed, you should notice that as you identify phrases in your favourite salsa tunes there is a repetitive building and release of tension. These should correspond (in most cases) to the distinct sides of the clave. Remember, however, that the 8-count phrase is only one way to observe tension and release in music. The same patterns could be observed over six 8-count's, or over an entire song. The 8-count phrase is simply one way to analyse phrasing and observe the function of clave. In dancing, phrasing is important because it distinguishes the 1 from the 5.
Everything covered so far is theoretically true. However, music is often more interesting when the rules are broken. Music is also open to interpretation. In other words, one person may hear a building of tension while another person hears release of tension in the same four beats. There is nothing wrong with this happening, but it can lead to arguments over clave direction. There are more technical musical devices which can be used to resolve these arguments, but those require more formal musical training. Actually, this is no problem when the claves are actually being struck and can be heard in the music. However, in many songs, the clave is not present. It is still implied, however, because all other rhythms are built on clave.
When Clave is not Present
If there is no audible clave in a song, never rely on the idea of tension. Tension and phrasing is most useful when ordering two bars of music (identifying the 1 and the 5). However, if you need to distinguish 3-2 clave from 2-3 clave, there are other instruments which can help.
The rhythmic instruments (often called the "rhythm section") in salsa may include several combinations of the following instruments: clave, bongos, cowbell*, timbales*, congas*, guiro, maracas, piano*, and bass. The starred (*) instruments are those which can indicate clave direction. Each of those instruments have their own rhythmic patterns which are distinct for each side of the clave.
Congas: Congas can be the easiest instrument to use when determining clave direction, but in some cases they are totally useless. The rhythmic pattern of the congas is called tumbao. It is a syncopated rhythm which includes all of the strong and weak beats. There are several different sounds which come from congas, but only one of them is used to determine clave direction - the open tone. The open tone has a ringing quality and is the most distinct sound the congas make. The basic tumbao is identical on both sides of the clave. Identifying only open tones, the pattern is [1 & 2 & 3 & X X]. Because this is a 4 beat pattern which is the same on the two and three sides of clave, it cannot be used to determine clave direction. However, during the intros and choruses of lots of songs, the tumbao is modified on the three side of the clave to be [1 & 2 X X & X X]. Knowing this, you can listen for open tones coming from the congas. If you hear [1 & 2 & 3 & X X 5 & 6 X X & X X], it is 2-3 clave. 3-2 clave would be [1 & 2 X X & X X 5 & 6 & 7 & X X]. Unfortunately, if the pattern is [1 & 2 & 3 & X X 5 & 6 & 7 & X X], clave direction cannot be identified by listening to the congas alone.
Timbales: A very versatile instrument, timbales can also make a variety of sounds. However, two rhythmic pattern played by the timbales can always be used to determine clave direction. The first pattern is called cascara. It is usually played by striking the sticks on the side of the drum and the resulting sound is tinny or metallic. The two side of the cascara is [X & X & X X 4 X] and the three side is [X & X X 3 X 4 X]. The second pattern is called campana and it is played on a bell. The two side of the timbal campana is [X & X & X X X X ] and the three side is [1 X X X X & X X]. While campana may seem complex to the eye, the rhythm is very distinct to the ear.
Cowbell: The cowbell makes two distinct sounds: one is a deep, ringing open tone, and the other is a muted, higher pitch tone. For our purposes, the high pitch muted tone will be "x" and the ringing open tone will be "X". During the chorus of a salsa song, the cowbell is marking strong beats with the ringing open tone. So this is an excellent tool to help with finding time. The open tones will be happening on 1, 3, 5 and 7 of the salsa basic count. The pattern that is played on the cowbell is also called campana, but the rhythm is very different. The two side is [X & x & X & x x] and the three side is [X & x x X & x x]. Can you spot the difference? Hint: Focus on beat 2.
Piano: The piano serves both as a rhythmic and a melodic instrument. As a rhythmic instrument, the piano plays a pattern called montuno. A basic piano montuno is [X & X X 3 X 4 X] on the two side and [1 X 2 X 3 X 4 X] on the three side. Piano montunos can vary quite a bit from the basic form. However, one indicator of the three side of the clave is that the piano will almost never hit the first beat (that could be a 1 or a 5 in an 8-count) on the three side. Moreover, it can be considered a general rule (remember all rules are meant to be broken) that most melodic instruments will avoid playing the first beat on the three side of the clave. As you use this information to determine clave direction, be careful not to confuse the "&" of 4 as the first beat (on2 dancing).
Dancing on Clave
Now that the mechanics of the son clave have been demystified, dancing can be considered. One might say that dancers have as much rhythmic responsibility as any musician. Dance steps are meant to occur at specific points in the music. First, recall that clave is a syncopated rhythm. Dancing on1 involves stepping to the following rhythm: [X X X 4 X X X 8]. This is not a syncopated dance. Dancing "on2", in contrast, involves stepping to the following rhythm: [1 & X & X & 4 X 5 & X & X & 8 X]. This is a bit tricky because on2 dancers say "1" when they are actually hitting the & of 8; and they say "5" when they are actually hitting the & of 4. Indeed, this is a syncopated dance.
COMMON MISCONCEPTION: "Dancing on clave means that your steps coincide with each beat of the clave." This is not true. To understand why, remember that "dancing on clave", "dancing with clave", and "dancing to clave" are all the same. Also, clave is not meant to provide a rhythmic pulse to the music. The basic step of salsa involves six steps while the clave only contains FIVE beats (3+2).
On1 dance steps will coincide with one beat (out of three) on the 3 side of the clave, and both beats on the 2 side of the clave. This means that if a dancer is dancing to 3-2 clave, the "1" and "6 7" steps will be in unison with clave. When dancing 2-3, the "2 3" and "5" steps will be in unison with the clave.
On2 dance steps will coincide with the two side of the clave only. On the three side of the clave, the dancer is actually dancing "around" clave. This means that if a dancer is dancing to 3-2 clave, the "6 7" steps will be in unison with clave. When dancing 2-3, the "2 3" steps will be in unison with clave. No strikes of the clave on the three side correspond to on2 dance steps.
The time changes by one hour on the first Sunday of each November. It is the switch from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time. But does time really change? What is really happening is a setting of clocks. Every clock is set back one hour. So time didn't actually change at all. The same is true of clave.
Clave does not change. What does change is musical phrasing. This simply says that a change in clave direction is caused by melodic phrasing. It makes sense because it has already been shown that the clave direction is initially determined by melody. It is not such a stretch to think that certain melodic changes might also cause the clave direction to change. In most cases, the changes in phrasing occur because of a break. A break is a point in the music in which tension is very suddenly accumulated or released. Characteristically, it involves a hard stop in the music and unison playing of several percussive instruments. This could be as sudden as one strike over half a bar of music or as drawn out as fifty strikes over several bars of music. It is also common for clave changes to occur without a break. These changes are technically identifiable, but it is much more plausible to rely on the feeling of the phrasing to identify these changes.
Many salseros disagree on how a change in clave direction affects the dance. There is actually very little to debate if phrasing is considered. The musical bar only contains four beats and each clave phrase spans two bars. In 8-count terms, the first bar starts with the 1 and the second bar starts with the 5. When a change in clave direction occurs, a phrase is either cut short by one bar or extended by one bar. This means that the "5 6 7" bar is removed from the phrase and replaced with another "1 2 3" bar. At that point, the clave has changed directions (melodic phrasing has shifted).
Since salsa dancing requires specific steps on specific beats, dancers should respect changes in phrasing. It is, after all, the phrasing that will identify the "1". Ignoring changes in clave direction is similar to ignoring Daylight Savings Time. Dancers pay very close attention to phrasing when they start dancing in order to be "on beat". There is a difference between the "1" and the "5". If the phrasing changes, the dance should also change.
Some songs change clave direction constantly. While this is musically interesting, it tends to be quite annoying to dancers. Often, clave will change directions for a few bars and then change back. In these cases, it is probably easier to ignore the clave change and continue dancing. Other times, clave will change direction and stay in the new direction for the rest of the song. Here, the dance should be adjusted with the phrase. Otherwise, an on2 dancer would technically be dancing "on6" for the rest of the song (6 is the "2" of the second bar of a musical phrase).
Having fun with Clave
This seems like a lot of information. Believe it or not, there's quite a lot which has been left unsaid because certain aspects of clave are not as relevant to dancers as to musicians. Dancers are visual musicians. Understanding clave to a reasonable degree can be a great asset in dancing salsa. There's no better way to "feel" the music than to get down to its roots - clave. The only rhythmic patterns in salsa which remain constant are those of the clave. The derivative rhythms (cascara, montuno, tumbao, etc) are frequently changed to make the music more interesting. As a dancer, it's perfectly ok to change the rules and make variations as needed. Just remember that it's best to know the rules before you break them!