Part 2 of “What’s the Clave Got to do with It?”
By Raul Avila
One of clave's main qualities is that its five beats are broken up into two distinct parts. Each part, or half, takes up 4 beats. One half is made up of 3 rhythmic accents, and the other half is made up of 2 rhythmic accents. Both sides, or halves, of the clave complement and complete each other. One can’t exist without the other. As such, there is not any part of the clave that is more “emphasized” than another. Every accent is as important as the other, and each side exists only in relation to one another.
Their relationship is similar to the relationship between night and day, hot and cold, or yin and yang. The two parts of the clave create a resistance that can be considered as a rhythmic dance. Note, the clave rhythm does not have a beginning or an end. How the clave begins or ends is dependent on the way the salsa song is written and arranged. This means that the clave can begin with either half. The clave can start with the 3-part of the clave (called 3-2 clave) or it can start with the 2-part of the clave (called 2-3 clave).
The 3-2 clave means that within the 8 beat phrasing of the song, the 3-part of the clave plays during the first 4 beats and the 2-part of the clave plays on beats 5 through 8.
The 2-3 clave means that within the 8 beat phrasing, the 2-part of the clave plays during the first 4 beats, and the 3-part of the clave plays on beats 5 through 8.
The effect of this two-part structure is to create a call and response, or tension and release quality, which is a common attribute in African rhythms and music. The rhythmic placement of the clave accents is what creates the tension and relationships that define this music's rhythmic identity. It is because of this placement that the music is able to “swing” the way it does. From another perspective, this placement creates a particular rhythmic space between the clave accents that are as much a part of the clave as the actual accents.
Role and Function of the Clave
You can think of this 5-part rhythmic pattern as the blueprint of salsa rhythms and music. And as a “blueprint,” it provides the rhythmic basis that organizes, shapes, and governs the Afro/Cuban based rhythms that are the foundation of salsa music. The placement of the clave accents, and their relationship to each other, give the clave a rhythmic shape (and syncopation) that generates a certain rhythmic tension, which can be defined as a pull or swing. This is the magic ingredient that makes the music so danceable!
Understand that the role of each instrument is to enhance the rhythmic drive in the music – which is to enhance the rhythmic potential of the clave. For example the bass line: when the music is at its most swinging - meaning the rhythmic drive intensifies, the bass line will drive the music by playing a rhythmic phrase taken right from the clave – the last two accents of the 3 part of the clave.
An important point to understand about clave is that it is a rhythmic reference and unifier. In this sense, the idea is not so much to play directly on a clave beat (for the dancer it would be to step on a clave beat), but to integrate layers of rhythmic sounds so that they are all in harmony with each other and fulfill the primary role of intensifying the rhythmic drive. This also means that the space, or beats, between the clave beats are just as important as the actual clave beats. Rhythm is a dance of sounds. How they integrate to enhance each other is what clave is all about.
Clave provides the rhythmic basis that each musician references in order to intensify the total rhythmic experience. It is like flowing with the current, but also having the ability to enhance the current. This is why musicians place a great deal of importance on it. Every musician, percussionist, vocalist, composer, and arranger, is always referencing the clave during every moment of the song, either directly or indirectly. A good musical arranger is recognized by his/her ability to align the arrangement "in clave." This means that each instrumental section, vocals, and melody are aligned so that they are in harmony with the clave. A singer, for example, to be considered worthy, not only has to have a good voice, but has to have the ability to create improvisational rhythmic phrases that are also in clave. Thus, intuitively or consciously, melodies are created, arrangements are developed, and singing patterns are inspired with the clave pattern always underlying them.
As the polyrhythmic layers build over and interweave with the clave, a sense of being "locked in" to the rhythmic swing and pull of the clave occurs. By building up all the musical components from the clave, the sounds created will complement and enhance and intensify the rhythmic wave that inspires the dancer to the dance floor.