LA CLÁVE — UNLOCKING the Mysterious Key to Cuban Music — Jose Conde
NOTE — I originally wrote this as part of an application to UCLA Ethnomusicology Post Grad program. Thankfully I was not accepted and I remained in NY where I founded OLA FRESCA with whom I have thus far written, arranged, and produced 3 of my 5 albums in Cláve y con mucho sabor!
My first attempts at singing Cuban songs where met with resounding disapproval by the Latin music purists in my band who scolded me repeatedly to sing “en la Clave”. I was a little offended at first, after all I have Cuban blood. I thought I knew what clave was and could clap the 2–3 or reversed 3–2 rhythmic pattern flawlessly. And I knew that clave was the focal point, the key or “llave”, which moves most Cuban music. But simply knowing a musical concept is not understanding or feeling it, as I later realised. So the band continued complaining, “You have to feel the clave when you sing”. I was intimidated by the awesome mystique which Latin musicians give to the clave. It was like Ben Kanobi telling an anxious Luke Skywalker to “feel the power of The Force”. The sacred exercise that I was given in order to cross the threshold was to practice singing Cuban son, guajira, or guaguanco songs, while clapping the appropriate clave underneath. (BUT THEN OF COURSE YOU HAVE TO KNOW WHAT THE APPROPRIATE CLAVE IS!) At first it was very difficult to stay in time with the clapping or to keep a steady clave ostinato with my singing. But somehow, I eventually achieved the tricky synchronization. The band stopped complaining and we went on to gig together for a year and a half before I left Boston. I moved on to New York where I found myself in a whirlwind of gigs immersed in a community of amazing Cuban and Cuba centric musicians and the clave rhythms in me grew strong and connected deeply. While I do now feel free of my old intimidations, clave remains an enigma worth looking into further.
In Castillian Spanish the word cláve has several non-musical meanings, all of which denote something central or key. Clave is the obscure code which unravels a secret language. It is the gist or main idea of a broad work or works. From architecture comes use of the word clave as the “keystone”, the vital foundation on which a wall, a system, an agreement, or a song is built .Destroy what is clave, and everything it supports will collapse. Hence we see why “musicians swear by the importance of clave”(PManuel)
As a musical term, the Spanish originally used “clave” to denote key signature, which puts a written piece or line in harmonic context, defining the tonal center and basic scale formula. My guess is that Spanish musicians in Cuba, observing the music of African slaves ,noticed the bell patterns at the core of the music and followed verbal logic, calling it “clave”. Naturally fused into the music that grew from the island over time, clave became the key signature of rhythm in Cuban music. By 1534 there were already about a thousand Africans on the Spanish Island colony of Cuba. They joined the last of the native Taino survivors and the the first waves of Spanish settlers. These were the seeds of a historic musical legacy. The Taino, who unfortunately did not survive Spanish encroachment, left us their guiro and maraca instruments, which are still Cuban music staples, also used in many other popular styles. The Spanish brought a western classical harmonic vocabulary spiced with the Middle Eastern sounds of Andalusia. The Spanish also contributed the guitar and a subtle tradition of everyday romance expressed in folk songs which they called guajiras. Later, with Dahomey, Carabali, Conga, and Yoruba slaves, arrived with their rituals, religions, and songs, communicated and celebrated in an African language of drums and rhythm. For the first 150 years of the colony, these musical and elements and cultural staples brought from Africa thrived and grew mostly unhindered by the monarchy, the church, or slavery. Unlike in the American colonies, slave families in Cuba mostly were kept together and groups were permitted to practice many of their traditions in organised weekly events and societies known as Cabildos. Conga, bata, bongo, shaker — the instruments from Africa were recreated with available natural Cuban materials and the craft of instrument making also evolved.
One of the most influential rituals which the new Cuban Africans practiced freely was called Comparsa. Originally, these were religious rituals in honor of various deity. A Comparsa, also called Conga, is a line of percussionists, singers, and costumed dancers who symbolize either a diety or a character in a story. White high society officially slandered the Comparsa as primitive and brutish even after the end of slavery, but the African music was too provocative for the Spanish. Comparsas distributed African rhythms from the streets, to the collective unconscious of Cuba, conquering hearts and souls, and feet.
Musicologist Elena Perez Sanjuro explains the impact of the comparsa;
“The ambiance formed by those dancing groups with colorful costumes filled with enthusiasm of the Cuban, who feels in his veins those rhythms he’s heard since the crib.” This influence inspired popular music and folk composers in Cuba and gave birth to Cuban Clave rhythm, which conceptually evolved from the bell patterns at the heart of African music. Adapted to Cuban music, the central rhythmic figure became more subtle and refined, played with — instead of with a metal bell — by the short, thick hardwood sticks aptly named “claves”.
In African music the bell pattern blurs the actual beat. In Cuban music and most derivative salsa, clave creates a strict framework for phrasing every layer in an arrangement. This creates a strong discernible groove from the smallest ensemble to the largest orchestra. But if everything is stripped away and only the clave and a Són melody is sung or played, the characteristic feel of the music remains.
This is the power of clave. To the Western ear, it makes dancing easier and more infectious. So much so that a massive industry has grown around Cuban clave based music popularised by the commercial music industry as “salsa”. Throughout the development of Cuban music, from Comparsa to Danzon, , from the earliest Cuban Son to todays international Salsa, clave has been the focal point and the backbone for Cuban music and the entire spectrum of musical genres that borrow from it’s traditions.
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