Listening to salsa – for dancers

Or, more than you probably ever wanted to know about clave

By Sydney Hutchinson (her blog)

OK, I admit it- I’m a freak. While most people tend to specialize as either dancers or musicians, I never could pick just one, so I do both. My education is primarily as a musician: I have a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and a master’s in ethnomusicology; I have also been a salsa pianist, arranger, and director for several years. But throughout my life, I have also been active as a dancer with several dance companies, performing everything from baroque to modern, Middle Eastern to Indian dance. Currently, I live in New York and perform salsa/mambo as a member of Razz M’Tazz dance company and play piano with J&V Mix (Jibaros y Vallenatos), a Colombian vallenato/Puerto Rican musica jibara/salsa fusion group. To me dance and music are just two parts of the same thing: ways to express emotion through time. The only difference is that one relies on sound, the other on motion.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research on the origins and current practice of New York style mambo recently. I have been impressed with the amount of writing produced by mambo dancers, and found most of it to be thoughtful and insightful. But – you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, right? – a lot of what dancers have written about salsa music is either confusing or just plain wrong. So I decided the time had come for me to do some explaining – to translate the language of music into the language of dance. This article is my attempt to explain to dancers how a musician understands and performs clave.

The articles I have seen focus on clave, the word and the concept, as being connected with the instrument of the same name, which is a pair of wooden sticks that are clicked together. While the clave is indeed an instrument, in modern salsa music it is seldom actually played, hence the difficulty for many dancers in “finding the clave.” The clave is a concept that is implied through the rhythms played by other instruments. So, instead of thinking of the physical instrument, think instead of the other meanings implied by the Spanish word: a key to salsa music, a nail that holds it all together.

You may be wondering: if you can’t hear the clave, how can you find it? It will take a lot of practice, especially if you don’t play an instrument or read music, but it can be done. I’ll start out by restating a few basic concepts you may already be familiar with, and move on to a rhythmic breakdown of each instrument.

Intro to clave

Clave is an eight-beat pattern (two bars of music in 4/4) that is divided into two halves. Either half can be played first. I’ll write both ways here using a system called Time-Unit Box Notation, which you can decipher without knowing how to read music. (Just count the numbers aloud while you clap your hands where indicated. I’m putting a space between each half to make it easier to read, but there’s no actual pause there. Keep your counting continuous.) As you’ll see, one half contains two beats, the other three. That’s why we talk about two-three or three-two clave.

2/3 Clave

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3/2 Clave

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Q: What are all those “ands” for?

A: Part of the clave does not fall on a numbered count – it falls on an offbeat; it is syncopated. Think about “syncopated” shines that you know – those are the steps that you have to count “1&2&3&4,” etc, right? (By the way, that’s not quite what a musician means by syncopated. What mambo dancers call syncopated, a musician would call “double-time.” When musicians say “syncopated,” they mean something that emphasizes an “off” or “weak” beat – like 2, or an “and” count. But I’m getting off my subject.)

Those are your basic “son” or “salsa” claves. You may also have heard of “rumba clave.” Some forms of Cuban rumba have a slightly more syncopated clave: the last beat on the “3” side comes slightly later. Take a look:

2/3 Rumba Clave

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 3/2 Rumba Clave

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But in reality, rumba clave is almost always played “3-2.”

“On 2” dancers say they dance “on clave” because a 2/3 clave starts on beat 2. Bonus question: what does that mean for a song in 3/2 clave? That starts on 1. So really, either way, you’re dancing “on clave.” I can dance on 1 or on 2 – which way I choose depends on the music.

Q: Do songs ever change clave: i.e., go from 2/3 to 3/2?

A: Yes, absolutely.  A well-known example: Oscar D’León’sLlorarás” begins in 3/2 and changes to 2/3 after the piano break. I don’t want to name names but I read an article explaining clave (written by a dancer) which stated that even though the singer and all the musicians may change clave within a song, the clave instrument (the sticks) keeps playing the same direction the whole way through. This is 100% FALSE. If one instrument is playing in a different clave than the others, people say it’s cruzado or crossed. It sounds terrible. When musicians get “off clave” it’s usually by accident, although some people have experimented with this effect on purpose.

OK, now you know what the clave is- but how can you find it (without having me there to tell you)? In some songs, it will be really obvious. Listen to Fruko’s classic, “El Preso.” The song opens with the bass and piano playing a catchy riff together. The rhythm they are playing is almost exactly a 3/2 clave pattern. Unfortunately, most songs won’t make it so obvious. The main thing is to remember than in the two side of the clave, the instruments will emphasize the numbered counts, the on beats. In the three side of the clave, where you have that pesky “and” beat, the instruments will emphasize the “ands,” the off beats. Let’s look at some common rhythms played by the different instruments in the salsa ensemble to illustrate. I’m just going to write the basics here, but you should remember that all salsa musicians improvise and play with the basic rhythms. That’s what makes it exciting.

NOTE: If you find one section too confusing or technical, feel free to skip to the next section. You don’t have to know every rhythm that every instrument plays. You just have to find one that works for you, one that you can hear and understand easily.

Güiro, cowbell

The first thing to do is find the beat – many listeners actually find this quite difficult with salsa music. Not every song has güiro in it, but if it is there the güiro is a good way to find the beat. (Güiro is the instrument made from a gourd with ridges cut into it, which is played by scraping a stick over the ridges.) Here is its rhythm, sometimes called caballito (little horse) because of its galloping sound:

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As you can see, it is not clave-based. Many times, you can hear the cowbell playing the same rhythm.

Congas or tumbadoras

Congas is the North American term for the set of drums that Cubans call tumbadoras. If  you’ve studied New York style mambo/salsa dance, you’ve probably heard that the conga slap on 2 is the easiest way to find the 2 count. Well- it would be if it were always there, but it isn’t. Every conguero plays in a different way. The basic pattern once again is called the tumbao, a word that comes from the instrument tumbadora. The tumbao is a pattern of constant eighth-notes (the way I’m writing the rhythms here, each box is an eighth note, both “numbered” and “and” counts). But it doesn’t sound like machine-gun fire because the conguero can make different sounds on the drum.

H = Heel of the hand                               S = Slap

T = Toe of the hand (fingertips)     O = Open tone (sounds loud and hollow)

Here is a basic, single-drum tumbao:

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O

I only wrote 4 counts because counts 5-8 are exactly the same, and it doesn’t change depending on clave.

The problem is that there are lots and lots of variations on this theme. Sometimes you may not hear the 2 slap at all, either because there is so much else going on that it isn’t audible, or because the conguero is improvising another rhythm entirely. Also, sometimes the conguero might confuse you by adding another slap on count 4 or the “and” of 4. So, while it is useful to listen for that 2 slap, it’s a good idea not to rely completely on the conga.

Many “on 2” dance teachers exhort their students to listen to a conga rhythm they describe as “tu-tum, pa!” That is the rhythm of the open and slap tones, notated above as O’s and an S. Here’s the rhythm dance teachers like:

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Pa!

 

 

 

Tu-

Tum

Timbales

The timbales are a drum set consisting of two small single-headed drums on a stand with a cowbell or two and sometimes a cymbal attached. Remember that the singular word is timbal which is Spanish for tympani (a kind of drum used in orchestras), not timbale, which isn’t a word at all! Think of the famous Tito Puente lyric, “más timbal para los rumberos.”

I already notated a common cowbell rhythm for you (see under “güiro”). One other rhythm to listen for is what is played on the cáscara, the metal shell of the drums.

2/3 Clave

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3/2 Clave

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Bass

The bass is usually pretty easy to hear. Once it gets started, the basic rhythm will be the same each bar (remember the musician’s bar is 4 beats, so the clave is 2 bars long) regardless of clave. This pattern is called the tumbao.

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Or:

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The bass usually only plays on “1” the first time around. After that, no more downbeats (it doesn’t play on 1 or 5).

Q: If the bass rhythm is the same on both the “2” and “3” sides of the clave, how can I tell them apart?

A: You won’t be able to tell if it’s 2/3 or 3/2, but you can figure out where the phrases are, which will help you to tell where the clave starts. For this, you have to listen to the notes. (Warning: I’m going to get a little technical here. This is for people who play an instrument or at least studied one at one time, even if it was only in junior high band.) In a basic salsa/son/guaracha tune (not necessarily in jazzier tunes), every time you get to the “1” count you’ll be on the same chord, the tonic or I chord. That is to say, in a tune in the key of C you’ll always start the clave on a C chord. Here’s an example of the bass tumbao in a very basic tune in the key of C, like “Cógele el gusto” by Wayne Gorbea:

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It’s a simple progression of I-IV-V-IV-I. Same goes for lots of other songs. Vámonos pa’l monte, Eddie Palmieri, key of g-minor. Bass tumbao notes: g/c/d/c/g. Castellano que bueno baila usted, Beny Moré/Oscar D’León, key of F-major, f/b-flat/c/b-flat/f.

Even if you don’t play any instrument, you can probably recognize the key of the tune. Then you just need to remember that at the beginning of the clave, the bass will be on that note.

Piano

Since I’m a pianist, this is the easiest way for me to find the clave. Here is the piano’s basic rhythm, which is called the montuno:

2/3 Clave

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Notice that on the “3” side, the whole thing is on the “ands,” while the “2” side clearly defines the downbeat (the “1”) and the “2.” Same for 3/2 clave:

3/2 Clave

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Harmonically speaking, just as with the bass pattern, in your standard salsa tune the piano will always be on the tonic chord by count 1.

Singers

Again, I don’t want to mention any names, but I did read one article that stated that lead singers almost always start on “1” so that would be a good way to find the clave. This is a TOTAL LIE. Singers can start on any count they want to! A few examples off the top of my head: Un verano in Nueva York. The lyric “Si te quieres divertir” starts on count 3. Rebelión, Joe Arroyo: “En los años 1600” starts on count 4. Etnia, Grupo Niche: “Hay Mosquera blanco” begins on the “and” of 1.

Moral: don’t count on the singers to find clave.

What you CAN do is figure out the song’s phrasing, just as you did with the bass, which can help you find where the clave begins. A lot of dancers have trouble knowing where to START counting, so they get their counts reversed: i.e., they think they’re on 2 when they’re really on 6. Music has phrases just like speech has sentences. The sentences in the singers’ lyrics usually match up pretty well with the music’s phrases, so when the coro (backup singers) gets to the end of a sentence, you can bet they’re getting to the end of a clave pattern as well. I’ll write a few examples here, matching up the lyrics with the appropriate side of the clave to give you an idea of what I mean.

1. Wayne Gorbea’s “Cógele el gusto,” 2/3 clave

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Pruébalo, cógele el

Gusto, mira que está

Bueno, que te

Va a gustar.

2. Grupo Niche’s “Han cogido la cosa,” 2/3 clave 

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Han cogido la

Cosa

Que pa’ reirse

Se burlan de

Han cogido la

Cosa

Que pa’reirse me

Agarran a

Conclusion

These are just a few suggestions for how to listen to salsa. Salsa is very complex rhythmically. That makes it difficult for beginners to understand, but that’s probably also what makes it exciting to listen to and fun to dance to. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Keep listening and practicing. Practice clapping the different rhythms I’ve written here. Practice finding the clave on your own. If you have a chance, find a musician and ask them to play some salsa rhythms for you, or ask them to explain to you how they listen to salsa. Everyone’s different!

Further reading

There has been a lot written about clave and Cuban music. The web page timba.com  has some interesting articles. The pianist Rebeca Mauleón-Santana wrote her master’s thesis about clave, entitled, The Cuban Clave: Its Origins and Development in World Musics (1997); she has since published several books on salsa such as Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble, which I would recommend if you’re able to read music. Also, ethnomusicologist Marisol Berríos-Miranda has written an outstanding article that examines the subject from the perspective of Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, and Venezuelan salsa musicians. It’s called “Is salsa a musical genre?” and appears in the book Situating Salsa edited by Lise Waxer (2002). The book contains a number of other interesting articles, as well - check it out.

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