What is a Clave? Unlocking The World-famous Rhythm!

What started out centuries ago as a percussive pattern in sub-Saharan Africa has become arguably the world’s most popular rhythm. The clave formed the basis of various types of Latin music and music with African and Caribbean influences, gradually finding its way into the language of many pop and jazz musicians too. But what is a clave rhythm?

In this article, we’ll answer this question and offer you a brief history of this concept of music theory along with its influences on modern songs, including by Camila Cabello, Santana, Herbie Hancock and even Adele..!

We should also note: the clave discussed here is not to be confused with the wooden musical instrument called the claves (which you can see in action here!)…

Definition: What is the clave?

The word ‘clave’ means ‘key’ in Spanish.

It’s not to do with tonality as the term ‘key’ usually refers to, but instead, the clave holds the music together like a keystone.

It’s essentially a repeating rhythmic pattern that is often played on a pair of sticks that are appropriately (or confusingly!) called claves. 

Within a clave rhythm, certain beats are emphasised; it’s not just a metronomic pulse that lands on each downbeat.

When you hear a clave, you will notice that different beats are accented across 2 different measures, so it is not the same pattern in consecutive bars. 

The instrument known as claves is very closely related to the clave rhythm, as the two sticks are what is most often used to tap out the beats.

Claves are incredibly useful for this purpose because their timbre is penetrative and powerful, allowing them to be heard, even above an entire orchestra.

Usually, there are a whole host of percussion instruments that add to the clave sound, rather than having just a set of claves performing the rhythm. 

Two Different Types of Clave Rhythm

Two main forms of the clave exist among the wide range of music that utilises this feature.

These are known as the son clave (or Cuban clave in some cases) and rumba clave, both of which can have a 2-3 or 3-2 structure.

The son clave is commonly used in Afro Cuban music whilst the rumba clave can often be heard in salsa music. 

Son Clave

The video below demonstrates the Son Clave.

It plays a crucial role in Afro-Cuban music, particularly in the son genre, and forms the rhythmic foundation for a wide range of musical styles including salsa.

The son clave is characterised by its relatively even spacing of notes, which provides a steady, driving rhythm that underpins the melody and harmony, guiding both musicians and dancers.

Rumba Clave

The video below demonstrates the rumba clave.

Whilst sharing the two-bar structure common to clave patterns, it has a distinct rhythm that sets it apart, particularly in its application within the rumba music genre.

The rumba clave is marked by a syncopation that is more pronounced than its Son counterpart, with the second beat of the three-note bar being delayed slightly, creating a distinctive swing.

This subtle shift in timing gives the rumba its unique feel, reflecting the intricate dance movements and the deeply expressive nature of rumba music.

Clave Time Signatures

Claves can be written in various time signatures; while they were originally written in 2/4, you can also get claves in 2/2, 6/8, 12/8 or 4/4 time.

This means that you will see claves in triple time as well as duple time, though triple time (6/8 or 12/8) is often more difficult to notate accurately. Then again, most traditional music in this style wouldn’t be written down with standard Western notation. 

There is also another pattern called the standard bell pattern, which has 7 strokes and includes the beats of both of these clave patterns.

While this is not a standard clave, it is sometimes referred to as a clave in North American music circles. Another name for it is the 6/8 bell, as they are used to writing it in 6/8.

What Is Meant By 2-3 And 3-2?

If a piece of music follows a 2-3 clave pattern, it means that the first bar of the pattern contains 2 accented beats and the second contains 3.

A 3-2 pattern is the opposite, i.e. one that has 3 stressed beats in the first bar and 2 in the second.

Music that follows one of these types always involves the same specific beats, so once you are familiar with the types, you can recognise them easily across genres.

The terminology associated with the 2-3 and 3-2  was popularised in North America when jazz musicians in New York City began to incorporate Afro Cuban rhythms into their style.

History Of The Clave

The clave was first developed in the drumming communities of sub-Saharan Africa.

It made its way to Cuba when Spanish voyages reached the Caribbean in the late 15th Century and began to colonise many of the Caribbean islands.

The Spaniards found that Cuban hardwood was harder and more durable than their Spanish wood, and as they had already depleted most of the timber supplies back home they began building their ships in Cuba.

African slaves were forced from their homes and sent to Cuba to work in the shipyards. Rather than using nails, wooden pegs were used which the African workers soon realised they could strike together to recreate the rhythms of their home.

Thus began the fusion of Cuban and African music, and soon the rhythms spread further afield around South America.

The first Cuban styles that adopted the clave included the danzĂłn and the habanera, but the infectious clave beat rapidly found its way into the rest of the country’s music. The clave has now been seen as an intrinsic part of Cuban identity for centuries.

It is only within the last 50 or so years that the meter of the clave has been defined by western musicologists.

Because the central focus of a clave is on cross-rhythms (i.e. going against the metrical structure) there are different ways it can be written down to express the same idea.

African musicologists such as C. K. Ladzekpo, Victor Kofi Agawu and David Locke were instrumental in figuring out a definitive representation of the patterns.

Nowadays, the clave can be seen in many genres throughout the world, including dance styles like salsa music, rumba, mambo and conga, as well as Afro-Cuban jazz, Abakuá music, Voodoo drumming and reggae.

Popular composers and musicians in the West also use it as a motif or decoration to infuse their works with an Afro-Cuban style. 

Examples of Clave In Modern Music

A lot of modern Western music, particularly in North America, uses the clave as a base when the writers want to achieve a certain ‘feel’.

Often it won’t be a strict replication of the rhythm, but an interpretation which mimics the same syncopation; the time signature is 4/4, but the bars are subdivided into a familiar clave-like pattern.

Here are just a few examples…

Smooth – Santana

This Grammy-winning song blends rock, Latin, and pop elements. The underlying rhythm of “Smooth” is driven by a pattern that closely resembles the son clave, contributing to its Latin groove and widespread appeal.

Havana – Camila Cabello

This hit song prominently features a clave rhythm, particularly in its pre-chorus and throughout the arrangement, lending it an unmistakable Latin flavour that complements its homage to Cabello’s Cuban heritage.

Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder’s classic incorporates various elements of Latin music, including the use of clave-like rhythms. This song from the album “Innervisions” showcases Wonder’s versatility and willingness to blend different musical styles.

Watermelon Man – Herbie Hancock

Originally a funky hard bop tune on Hancock’s debut album “Takin’ Off,” “Watermelon Man” was later rearranged by Mongo SantamarĂ­a into a Latin jazz classic that prominently features the clave rhythm.

Both versions highlight the song’s adaptability and the clave’s versatility.

Additionally, songs that don’t feature a strict clave still mimic the same syncopation, such as Adele’s Hello and John Legend’s All of Me – the time signature is 4/4, but the bars are subdivided into a familiar clave-like pattern.

Thanks for reading! Looking to learn more about Latin, Cuban and Brazilian music?

Check out our articles on Latin Jazz Music and Latin Jazz and Afro Cuban Guitar.

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