By Joe McCarthy

Afro-centric rhythms and instruments are present in virtually all styles of music and it is imperative for band directors of all levels to understand the core functions and applications of these rhythms. When studying this genre, one must turn to Cuba because of its unparalleled contributions to this style of music. Since the 16th century, Cuban music has been a melting pot of African and European harmonies, melodies, and musical instruments. Of particular interest are deep connections to many Cuban drumming styles where enslaved African people were able to maintain their sacred and secular drumming traditions. These traditions created an essential bond between music and language.

You’ve heard this term before, but I’d like to simplify this topic so you are totally comfortable and understand it completely. This way you can explain it to your students.

Stay with me now:

One of the most important and unique characteristics of Cuban music is the clave, which translates to the “key.” Clave is quite simple and easy to understand. The clave is the structural core of Cuban music. I am referring to clave as a concept, not the percussion instrument the claves, although the rhythms of the clave patterns are played on the claves. You hear it and feel it constantly in all styles of music, including classical and pop. It is a rhythmic cell or pattern which is the foundation of most Cuban rhythms. In a nutshell, the clave is the glue that holds this music together. In the Afro-Cuban style and related music, all instrumental, melodic, and harmonic phrases should be in sync with the clave, this includes phrases that are improvised. The clave concept is a 5-note (5-stroke) cell or pattern phrased over two measures. The clave pattern is either 3:2 or 2:3, which means there is a 3-side and a 2-side of the clave. These numbers simply indicate which side of the clave the phrase begins.

The next step: The son clave and the rumba clave are the common types of clave. Son clave is heard primarily in salsa and popular dance music, while rumba clave is heard primarily in folkloric music and Latin jazz. Although the rhythmic structure of son clave is similar to rumba clave, the difference is the rumba has a little syncopation of the last note on the 3 side which adds tension to the music.

I’ll demonstrate the son clave, both the 2:3 and the 3:2 in 4/4 and then in cut time:

Now, in this short video clip, I’ll demonstrate the rumba clave and clearly show you the difference between the son and rumba clave.

How do you know which clave is correct or which one to use? Typically the 2-side clave corresponds to a melody containing less syncopation. Conversely, the 3-side clave typically contains more of a syncopated melody. There are exceptions of course. The direction of the clave is either 2:3 or 3:2 and the direction is dependent upon the rhythmic and melodic structure of thetune. In other words, begin by determining whether the rhythmic structure of the melody has a tendency towards the non-syncopated 2 side or the more syncopated 3 side of the clave.

Not every melody will outline the clave exactly, so listen for accents and figures, many of which are characteristic to this style of music. Once the clave is internalized, this concept will make more sense, as you will relate the phrase to the clave. How does this happen? LISTENING. Investigate Cuban folkloric drumming, salsa and Latin jazz. The clave is there.

Next: It is also very important to understand that clave is a fixed pattern, which means the direction of the clave does not change! Stay with me now: However, because it is an even-numbered phrase, a common technique is to incorporate an odd-numbered phrase to give the illusion of a “change” in the direction. In other words, the next phrase starts on the other side of the clave, tricking our ears into thinking it has changed, but it hasn’t. Another odd-bar phrase will return the clave to the “original” direction. I refer to this as “Moveable 1”.

Check out these short videos to further explain and demonstrate the “Moveable 1.”

Take a few moments to internalize the clave so you are able to hear and feel the pattern. Share it with your students, too.

View more instructional videos from Joe McCarthy on his YouTube playlist:

joemccarthyJoe McCarthy has led a diverse career as drummer/percussionist, bandleader, producer, and educator in a myriad of settings from symphony orchestra to bebop, big band, Afro-Cuban, theater and beyond. Joe is the founder, leader, producer, and drummer of Afro Bop Alliance, winner of the 2008 Latin GRAMMY for “Latin Jazz Album of the Year,” and nominated in the same category for the 51st GRAMMY Awards for the Heads-Up release Afro Bop Alliance featuring Dave Samuels. Click here to learn more.