Get acquainted with the two meanings of the word “clave”, hear the instrument in action, and learn how to count out the ubiquitous rhythm that borrows its name from the instrument. 

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Christopher: Hello and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. Today we’re going to be talking about clave or sometimes pronounced “clave.” We’ve been going back and forth within the team, and we’ve decided unanimously to stick with clave as best we can. It’s spelled C-L-A-V-E. And you may have seen this word or heard it in your musical life. Today we’re going to unpack what is clave and why you should care about it and how you can go about using it if you find it interesting.

So I’m joined today by Andrew and Anastasia from the team. Guys, say hello. Andrew, who are you and what do you do at Musical U?

Andrew: Hi. I’m Andrew Bishko, and I am the product manager and content manager at Musical U. So that means I keep things running on the site with all the different educational modules and also on our blog. And I am also a musician.

Christopher: Terrific. And Anastasia?

Anastasia: Hi my name is Anastasia, and I’m the assistant content editor at Musical U. I am also a musician, a multi-instrumentalist in fact, but I do not play the clave.

Christopher: Not yet, anyway.

Anastasia: Not yet.

Christopher: So Andrew, why don’t you just give us a few hits of the clave? Because the clave, one thing it is, is an instrument.

Andrew: [Clave sounds] So what I’m … if you can’t see what I’m doing, which you can’t because you’re just listening, I have these two sticks, and I’m hitting them together and they make this sound.

Christopher: Very good. And you may recognize that sound. It’s a staple of percussion sound sets. So a lot of electronic drumbeats will use that, and we also often hear it as a beat lead-in. I think … I don’t know if Garage Band uses a clave for its count-in but-

Anastasia: They do have it, yeah. And they do use it for the count-in.

Christopher: So you may have heard that sound. That sound is a clave. But it’s also a type of rhythm. So Anastasia, you were primary author on our recent epic guide to the clave on our website, so why don’t you take things away. What is the clave and why should we care about it?

Anastasia: Sure. So to begin with the question, “What is the clave?” As Christopher alluded to, clave actually refers to two things. There is the instrument, and there is the style of music that is very closely tied to the instrument. So clave is the name given to the percussion instrument that Andrew was just playing. It traditionally comes from Afro-Cuban music. It consists of just two cylindrical wooden sticks that are struck together, and as you heard, it produces a very kind of bright, ringy, percussive sound. And this sound kind of forms a lot of the backbone of Caribbean music. It cuts through every other instrument to be heard very, very well. It’s, in fact, the central instrument around which all the other instruments orient themselves.

So, moving on to the rhythm itself, the rhythm that you just heard Andrew play is something known as the son clave. It’s called a son clave because it comes from the Cuban son. So just to repeat it, it sounds like this.
So this clave comes in two flavors, actually. There’s the three-two clave, called so because you can count it like this: One-two-three, one-two. And then there’s the opposite, it’s the two-three clave which is much less often heard and I’m going to try and clap it out now.

So it’s actually just the reverse. If you go to our article, there will be a link in the show notes to Clave: The Secret Key to Pop Rhythm. There will be those two, the three-two son clave and the two-three son clave, illustrated in bars. And one is just the reversal of the other. But by far the most popular is the three-two son clave.

Why should you care about it? Because, simply put, it can be found almost everywhere. So it might’ve originated in Afro-Cuban music, and it’s definitely found its home, or has its home, in samba music, in timba music, in the Cuban son, in the rumba. But actually also, it’s found everywhere in modern music, from pop, which Andrew’s going to get to in a second, to rock, to hip-hop. Actually, if you want to listen to an excellent, kind of really clear example of the three-two son clave use in hip-hop, you can listen to Snoop Dogg’s song, Drop It Like It’s Hot because the whole song is actually formed over this really, really distinctive three-two son clave beat. And you can hear it really clearly because of this kind of sparse instrumentation.

So to talk a little bit about where this rhythm even came from, I won’t take up too much time with this, but it was essentially the result of African, or sub-Saharan African, rhythmic traditions being brought over to Cuba and then kind of melding with the traditional music and dance styles over there to create this rhythmic tradition that would then go to the Americas and influence rock and pop and so on.

Christopher: Interesting. And so at its core, if we’re talking about the musical sense of clave rather than the instrument, it is this two-bar rhythmic pattern and you can swap those two bars around. But it sounds like what’s most impactful about it is that that two-bar loop then becomes the whole backbone, or framework, for all of the rest of the rhythm in particularly rhythmic music. This kind of Latin rhythmic style that we’re all very familiar with to hear but might not have tuned our ear into the underlying clave in, is that right?

Anastasia: Yeah exactly. Kind of it serves as the meter of most Afro-Cuban music. You just hear it throughout. It’s often used as like a little introduction before all the other instruments kick in. But it’s always there and because, again, of it’s really bright sound it cuts right through everything else.

Christopher: Cool. And I think you gave us a little hint there, talking about its use in rock, pop, and even hip-hop. I think, disappointingly, that may be the first time Snoop Dogg has appeared on Musical U or the Musicality podcast. We’ll have to bring him back and feature his music on the podcast more often. But that gives us a taste of why this is important. It does kind of show up all over the place, right? And, as we often talk about on this show, when you can tune your ear into something in music and add the understanding of how it’s working, that gives you a whole new ability to do interesting things in music, so in a moment, Andrew’s going to talk a bit about how to actually play off the clave rhythm and how to play on top of it.

But before we do that, let’s just break it down a little because, Anastasia, you demonstrated that with clapping, but it was quite quick, and I’m sure people are maybe getting the idea, but let’s just break it down and talk about how to count it and how to understand how this rhythm’s put together. So, Anastasia, when you were clapping it just now, what were you thinking in your head to get that rhythm right?

Anastasia: So here’s the interesting thing about clave. It’s kind of a lot easier to just naturally count it out like that rather … sorry, not count it out like that, but just feel it and clap it out rather than counting. But another way, other than just hearing it, you can go onto YouTube and just Google three-two son clave and just clap along, and it’s quite easy to get the hang of it. But for those who are more mathematically minded, you can count it like this: You can count it in groups of threes and twos. So, for example, here’s the three-two son clave counted out with numbers: One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four. And so on.

And you can also do that for the reverse. You can do it for the two-three son clave. So with this, you have to slow it down a little bit, obviously, because you’re cramming a lot of numbers into that, but you can gradually speed up. If you practice with a metronome, I find that helps a lot. I tried that out myself. So that’s a really good place to start if you’re more of, like, a, “I need to understanding the counting, rather than just hearing it and repeating it.”

Christopher: Gotcha. Yeah. So at Musical U, we just launched this new course called Foundations of a Musical Mind, and as we were doing that launch, I was talking about how some of the mental models we have in music don’t serve you as well as they’re meant to. And this is a great example, I think, because if you come from classical Western music theory, which a lot of music students in the US or the UK or Europe will, we’re taught that counting rhythms is the way to do it. And when you look at the sheet music, you’re meant to figure out, “What’s the one ee and the two ee and the three ee and the four,” or whatever the breakdown is. And then figure out where the notes slot into that.

But, as you just said sometimes that is quite intricate, and this clave rhythm’s a perfect example where it comes from a different musical tradition, and partly because of that, it’s not super easy to count out in that way, and it was interesting. I definitely found myself … I was reading through the article, and I was looking at the score and trying to figure out how to play it, and I found myself doing a mix, so I was doing, “One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, boom, boom,” and I didn’t even bother to count it. I was just like, “And then it’s boom, boom.”

Anastasia: Yeah. There’s something very natural about it, isn’t there? It’s kind of … it’s like, the son clave, at least, I find, is kind of like a build up and then the resolution to the buildup is one-two-three and then the boom, boom. And everyone always says, “Boom, boom.” It’s like we all naturally gravitate towards saying that. So it’s a very natural resolution because it’s dance based. It’s long and short pulses that we somehow intuitively feel. It’s cool.

Christopher: Yeah. So we just kind of dashed off a few examples there, but if you’re new to this, you will need to practice a little bit. So to help people tune their ear in, Andrew, why don’t you just play us the clave rhythm on the clave? Why not, a little bit slower. And if you wouldn’t mind, why don’t you count through in whatever way you like the first couple of times and then just play it, and we’ll let our listeners kind of turn their ear into what’s happening.

Andrew: Okay. One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four, one-two-three, one-two-three…

Christopher: Perfect. Thank you. And, Anastasia, I think you said this on our team call this week, but I certainly found the same today, reading through the article, which was, “This sticks in your head.” Once you turn your ear into it, you will find yourself cooking dinner and being like, “Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom,” and you’ll be like, “Oh, that’s what I doing!”

Anastasia: Totally.

Christopher: “That clave just stuck in my head.”

Anastasia: Absolutely. There was an anecdote on one website, from a Cuban woman who just says that, like, the son clave rhythm is so ingrained into Cuban culture that it was on the radio, it was on the television, everywhere, and in her youth, her mom would hold her as a baby and just shake her kind of along to the clave rhythm, like make her dance to it, which I found really cute and just so telling of how infectious it is.

Christopher: So once you’ve got that beat going in your head, what’s that going to do for you? Andrew, you mentioned you might be able to demo how you might play on top of this in a band, maybe improvising on top of a background of clave rhythm.

Andrew: Absolutely. Well, in Spanish, the word “clave” means “key,” and it really is the key to the rhythm. And before I do this demo, I want to underline how, you know, in Western music, we try and square everything off. We want to see everything, you know, 4/4, a little box, and … but the way people dance, the way people move their bodies, and the way they dance isn’t necessarily squared off. We have this concept in Western music that we call syncopation, which is accents that are off the beat.

But in African traditions, they don’t conceive of their music as syncopated. It’s just the rhythms and the feelings and the pulses and the way they are and layering them on top of each other. So clave means key because, when you’re doing clave, it’s, as Anastasia so beautifully expressed, everything rotates around the clave. You’re playing off of the clave, and I’m going to just start up a little loop here, okay.

So here, this is the clave. So this is clave with metronome. So you can hear how they… they’re in a dialogue, the pulse and the clave. I’m going to turn the metronome off now. So one really good exercise to do with this is just to play around with the rhythm. You first might want to go like (singing) and then start to do rhythms that are off (singing), you know? And then you take that idea and put it onto a melody. So you see how everything I’m playing rhythmically is in a dialogue with the clave. And that’s how it is with Latin music beat. All the different layers of an Afro-Cuban piece, the bass and the congas and the bongos and the guiro and all these different percussion instruments build up, but also all the melody instruments are always in dialogue with this clave. I feel like I’m talking in a dialogue with the clave right now.

And everything is… and I remember when I used to play in Latin bands, and I used to sit in with these bands. And then I had a really good sense of clave. I was playing off of clave. And then these jazz guys would come in and sit in, and you could tell. I mean, they’re playing all over the horns and they’re, like, sounding like they’re so… they think they’re really, really cool. But you could tell they had no dialogue. There was no conversation with the clave rhythm. And that’s really the essence of Latin music.

But it’s also the essence of all of our popular music. By the way, Anastasia mentioned that the clave, the word clave, the instrument, and this rhythm originates with the Afro-Cuban music, but the concept of having these off beats that we’re dialoguing with is as ancient as humanity making music. And you can find examples of this in all different kinds of world music.

And in popular music, there’s examples of people taking the clave and using it. You know, you have (singing) and songs like that, where you have the clave being taken directly, but you also have modifications of the clave. And in today’s popular music, you hear the first part of the son clave, the one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, you hear that in everything. And I challenge you to find a pop song that doesn’t use this rhythm.

Because the way I came into this, this realization, is I was teaching music, and I had children coming in. They want to learn their favorite songs. But you try and notate those favorite songs, try and notate that clave rhythm, which doesn’t fit right with the 4/4, and they’re … they can’t read that. But they can feel it. And they can feel it better than thinking, “Okay, it comes down to and a this and a this of that, and it comes on the beat here, then it ties over to the next measure.” Rather than doing that, you just say, “Count it one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two,” and it all fits, you know?

So here’s the intro from Adele’s Hello. It’s like we have one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two. It’s very clear. And if you count along with your favorite pop songs and other … like, John Legend’s All of Me is another one that’s a really good example of this. But just about everything. Try and count them. Instead of going, “One, two, three, four,” count them, “one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two.” And see how this rhythm is completely ingrained in our popular music.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well, Andrew, you had a little loop of a clave there that you were playing over. How did you get that?

Andrew: That was on Garage Band on my iPad, and actually, they had a clave rhythm. I had to edit it a little bit just to keep the three-two part in there because they tried to get fancy like they usually do. And-

Christopher: Cool. Well, just to mention if you do want to practice with a clave as your metronome like that, any drum machine or sequencer software is going to let you kind of tick boxes to create the drum rhythm. We’re also going to put a link in the show notes to our article on clave, where you’ll find a downloadable, loopable beat that you can just put in your music player on loop. And I wanted to also give a shout out to Ethan Hein’s article. He had a really nice article about clave, kind of dissecting it in different ways, and he pointed to a tool you can also use online to create your own clave rhythm and play around with it.

So hopefully if you’re listening, and clave was new to you, you’ve got a feel for what it is, and I’m sure some of you are going to be going away counting “one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two” for the rest of the day, and I apologize for that, but only a little bit. And do check out the show notes for a link to this article where you’ll see all of the kind of score notation for the examples we’ve been talking through, annotated with how to count it. And we mention just a couple of variations there, the main three-two clave and the variation of the two-three version, where you swap the bars around, and we’ve worked out the pop clave, as he calls it, where you just take that first bar and loop it. But there are other versions. There are other variations of the clave rhythm, so do check out that article for all the details.

A big thank you, Andrew and Anastasia, for joining us today. Any parting words of wisdom on the clave?

Andrew: One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three.

Anastasia: [laughs]

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