Understanding Clave – Part 1

It’s time to focus on the next steps in becoming a Latin player. Learning details of each style. I should tell you first that this is a road with no ending. Styles come and go and the variety that can be studied, is mind boggling. From this point on you can consider yourself a researcher in this area. Not only a drummer.

Understanding Clave / Part 1

Lets begin with basics of Afro Cuban music. What is “Clave” First, we need to make absolutely sure that this term “Clave” is clear in our heads. We need to function with the phrase conceptually, physically and have an understanding of it’s beauty. We need to discover the secrets that the phrase holds and apply them on the kit. I see and hear from many western drummers, that there is confusion about what this term “clave” means. The confusion comes from language and cultural barriers.  So lets clear things up.

A) In Language/Culture – The direct translation from Spanish would be “a key element” / like the key to solving a mystery or puzzle. Native Spanish speakers often use the term in casual conversation. When discussing how to solve problems or simply talking about life. Being “in clave” can also imply that you are a person that has his act together:-) And can also be considered – A state of mind – So you hear the word itself being used as a normal part of people’s vocabulary, in different ways.

B) In musical terms, it is a rhythm or phrase that provides a time line structure. A rhythmic framework on which music is arranged. “Somewhat” like bar lines or measures in western music theory. The term “clave” has been popularized in western musicians terminology because of the popularity of Afro-cuban music. But, I have also heard the term applied loosely to many phrases that provide rhythmic structures in different styles of african descent music, or african music itself. This ads confusion as well. Like in brazilian music for example. Technically there is no “clave” like in Afro cuban music. But some people insist on calling the Partido alto rhythm “Brazilian clave” or the familiar Bossa nova sidestick pattern “Bossa clave”….well…fine. As long as you know that the term is applied loosely in these cases.

c) The term “clave” is also applied to the instruments that are dedicated to playing the actual rhythm. If you play a “jam block” for example with your left foot, it would still be called clave, even though it’s a jam block. A little tricky if you don’t speak Spanish. This knowledge makes things easier when playing in a band. People generally refer to whatever instrument is playing the rhythm, as the clave. Knowing about how the clave rhythm works, and its function, can lead you to playing possibilities that you may have never imagined. For the drummer in particular, this is a fascinating and eye opening journey…that basically, never ends.

Afro cuban Clave workshop




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