Clave is a rhythmic pattern used as a tool for temporal organization in Afro-Cuban music, such as salsa. The word clave is Spanish for “key”, in the sense of an answer key or a musical key signature. The word is usually pronounced [ˈklaβe] in the Spanish style, but many American musicians pronounce it to rhyme with save.
Depending on the style and musicians involved, the clave may play a role from a simple rhythmic decoration to an elaborate structural framework to which the rest of the music must relate.
(Listen to a Midi "son clave.")
Because there are three notes in the first measure and two in the second, the above is said to be in the 3:2 direction. The 2:3 clave is the same but with the measures reversed.
There is some debate as to how the 6/8 clave should be notated, as in actual practice, the third note on the 3 side and the first note on the 2 side often fall in rhythmic positions that do not fit neatly into Western music notation. Therefore, many variations are possible.
When applying a pulse to the 6/8 clave, it is possible to count or “feel” it in several different ways. These are shown in the diagram below, with the 6/8 (here called Afro Feel) clave on the top and the pulse or beat on the bottom. Any, all, or none of these “feels” may be used at a given point in a piece of music using the 6/8 clave.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the musical vitality of the clave is the spirited debate it engenders, both in terms of musical usage and historical origins. This section presents examples from non-Cuban music, which some musicians (not all) hold to be representative of clave. The most common claims, those of Brazilian and subsets of American popular music, are described below.
Clave in its original form is a Spanish word and its musical usage was developed in the western part of Cuba, particularly the cities of Matanzas and Havana. However, the origins of the rhythm can be traced to Africa, particularly the West African music of modern-day Ghana and Nigeria. There are also rhythms resembling the clave found in parts of the Middle East.
There is some debate as to whether or not clave as it appears in Cuban music functions in the same way as its sister rhythms in other forms of music (Brazilian, American, African, Middle-Eastern). Certain forms of Cuban music demand a strict relationship between the clave and other musical parts, even across genres, that seems to be unique to Cuba. For example, the cáscara part in the Guaguancó (a folkloric style) relates to the clave in the same way as the cáscara part in the popular Salsa styles. In Brazilian or American pop music, any combination of rhythms can be placed over top of the “clave”.
The wide-spread nature of clave-type rhythms across many cultures may have to do with borrowing material, or it may have to do with the mathematical properties of the clave rhythm: the 3 side of the clave produces an approximate golden section ratio between its three notes and the pulse or beat. This makes the clave rhythm satisfying according to the theory of aesthetics that claims that humans enjoy seeing symmetry—clave functions as a high-order rhythmic symmetry and, according to this analysis, that is the reason we find it pleasing. It is also one of the easiest syncopations to produce in 4/4 time, which may suggest that it was developed independently by several different cultures. For example, James P. Johnson's influential "Charleston" rhythm is virtually the same as the 3 side of the son clave. Johnson said he had learned the rhythm from dockworkers in the South Carolina city.
Some musicians claim that clave also exists in Brazilian music. The Brazilian rhythms that are sometimes called claves occasionally share rhythmic similarities—but not always—and may have a different musical function. Culturally, linguistically, and in terms of ethnic background, Cuba and Brazil are both also quite distinct. However, through trade and other interactions in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is possible that common musical material was exchanged, but this remains to be verified historically.
The examples below are transcriptions of several patterns resembling the Cuban clave that are found in various styles of Brazilian music, on the ago-gô and surdo instruments.
Legend: L=low bell, H=high bell, O = open surdo hit, X = muffled surdo hit, and | divides the measure:
For Samba3 above, the clave pattern is based on a common accompaniment pattern played by the guitarist. B=bass note played by guitarist's thumb, C=chord played by fingers.
Another example of possible clave in Brazilian music is shown here: Alaiande Alaiande Xirê performed for Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá in Salvador, Brazil.
The singer enters on the wrong side of the clave and the ago-gô player adjusts accordingly. This recording cuts off the first bar so that it sounds like the bell comes in on the third beat of the second bar. This is suggestive of a pre-determined rhythmic relationship between the vocal part and the percussion, and may support the idea of clave in Brazilian music. It may, however, simply be a phrasing particular to this song.
Also worth noting is that a son or rumba clave can be extropolated from most of the rhythms in the example above. LL.L.H.H|L.L.L.H.
One theory of the difference between the Brazilian Samba clave feel and the Cuban clave feel is that the Cuban clave typically presents one bar of rhythmic tension followed by one bar of relaxation, whereas Brazilian clave tends to place the tension at either end of the rhythm and the relaxation in the middle. The pickup to the first bar sets off the tension.
Although the actual term clave is mostly used in the context of Afro-Cuban music, the rhythm also permeates Rock and Roll and Jazz. This is not surprising, as early twentieth-century musicians from Havana and New Orleans would take the twice-daily ferry between both cities to perform.
Both the New Orleans "Second Line" rhythm, and the variation in popular music which came to be known as the "Bo Diddley beat" are similar to the son clave rhythm, with a shift of the accent from the third note of the three-note portion to the first note of that portion.
The song "Little Darling" is built around clave rhythms. The bass riffs of "China Grove" by the Doobie Brothers use clave. The Macarena uses clave. There are hundreds of other examples throughout jazz and popular music. See also Spanish Tinge.