Clave Consciousness Lesson Notes
Volumes 1 & 2

Clave-Consciousness vol-1 Son Clave

Volume 1 – Son Clave & 12 Bell

(“Son” is pronounced: “sohn” and rhymes with ‘own’)

Web note 1: Cuban music

Through the legacy of the transAtlantic slave trade, the African Clave feeling spread throughout the New World, mixed with several European languages, and can be heard in the music of Cuba, Haiti, Domincan Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Jamaica, Brazil and the United States, among others.

Cuba, formerly a colony of Spain, has a rich blend African and Spanish music and culture. In Cuban music and dance, Clave is especially prominent, and could be considered a philosophy or approach. Afro-Cuban musicians spread the Clave feeling, sound and terminology to America and other parts of the world through their music, mostly the Son (rhymes with own) and Rumba (pronounced Rroom Bah.)

Cuban music has had a great influence on music of the world and the Western Hemisphere in particular. This is due to many factors, starting with the intensity and liveliness of the music itself and the close proximity of Cuba to the U.S. Other reasons include the early use of European instruments by Cuban musicians, and the fact that Cuban music was some of the first recorded by Thomas Edison on his primitive phonograph. The percussive nature of Cuban music, and the claves in particular, lent itself to leaving clear impression on those early wax cylinders. Radio, which was spreading through out the world at this time as well, helped to further spread the sound of Cuban music and helped to create the “Rumba” craze in America of the 1930’s. (This “Rumba” music was actually Son, recently made popular in mainstream America thought the CD and movie Buena Vista Social Club.) Cuba was a favorite holiday spot for many Americans up until the Cuban Revolution in1959. Our ongoing cultural exchange has led to the fact that the sound of Claves and the Clave rhythm have become part of American culture.

The influence and popularity of Cuban music in America has led to the use of the term “Clave” by non-Cuban percussionists, dancers and rhythm affectionados.

Web note 2

The fact that the strokes in one half of the pattern are not played in the other is basic to the feeling of the Clave. Each half of the rhythm has it own momentum. The placement of the three strokes in the first half is in great contrast to the placement of the two strokes in the second half. The first half is a suspended, off beat feeling and the second half is a resolved, on beat feeling.

Web note 3

Son Clave is one name musicians use for a very common pattern that you have probably heard. It is so named because it forms the basis of the Cuban Son music and dance. Son is the sound of Clave, maracas, bongo, bass, tres guitar, guitar, chorus, and lead singer. Other instruments are also used. It is basically an acoustic sound and was recently made poplar in the United States by the movie and CD Buena Vista Social Club. The Son is the grandfather of what is known as Salsa.

This same pattern could have different names in other parts of the world. In Brazil it might be called “Maculele agogo”, in West Africa it might be called “Highlife bell” and in America it might be called “Bo Diddly’s rhythm” or the “carpenters knock”.

Web note 4

The balance of strokes and spaces in the pattern completely reverses. It changes from a pattern of 5 strokes and 7 spaces to a pattern of 7 strokes and 5 spaces. This change of density is the primary reason why the two patterns feel so different.

Web note 5

Two cycles of the pattern looks like this when written out:


Remember, this view is starting on the pick up, before one.

R is Right, B is Both and L is Left. The | means that the next stroke ( B in this case) is the beginning or unity point of the pattern.

Web note 6

There are other important twelve bell patterns, but this one is the most common, widespread and important one to learn. Another important twelve bell pattern is used in Haitain music. It is very similar to the pattern we leaned here in Clave Consciousness Vol. 1. To learn this pattern, please check out Vol. 4 of my Speaking of Rhythm lessons: Yan Valu

Clave-Consciousness vol-2 Rumba Clave

Volume 2 – Rumba Clave & AbaCua Clave

Please read Web note 1 above about Cuban music

The simplest meaning of Cuban Rumba is “Party” – a popular social dance music and song played with 3 conga drums or different size wooden boxes, Claves and gua gua or cascara - two smaller sticks beaten on a piece of bamboo or the shell of a drum. Sometimes one shaker is also used. A lead singer introduces a song theme or story, and the drums accompany. As the song builds, the drums become more active, developing conversations. As the song peaks, the chorus joins, the drums expand their conversations, and the voices become a rhythmic ostinado that the lead singer improvises over while couples dance, usually one at a time. Of course rum, beer and food are important elements.

The 4-4 Clave pattern we are learning in this lesson is at the center of Rumba. It is usually played by the singer. In other styles of music it could be played by the timbales, drumset or other instruments, used as a signal or break or – not played, but felt as the core organizing principle of the music.

The 12-8 Clave pattern we will learn in this lesson is central to the Cuban music/dance form called AbaCua, a relative of Rumba. It is usually played on the basket rattles. I have played in on bell as well as the rattles to make it more clear.

Web note 1

The Rumba Clave pattern is not only central to the Cuban music styles Yambu, Columbia, Guaguanco, Conga, Mozambique, Iyesa, Bata, Timba, Songo, (and more) but is now popular in Brazilian Axe’ music of the Blocos Afros. In Axe’ music it is typically played on the repinique or caxia and goes by the name “Swinge”. The Rumba Clave pattern also shows up prominently in the drumset parts to the Afro pop music of Habib Koite of Mali. His albums Foly! and Ma Ya are good examples.

The 12-8 pattern we call AbaCua Clave is part of traditional Djembe and DunDun music. I learned as a Sangba part for a rhythm called Sigandi from Senegal. I’ve also heard it in Ballet style Djembe and Dun Dun as performed by the world famous Percussionists of Guinea and others.

Web note 2

There is only one stroke placement difference between Rumba Clave and Son Clave. In Son Clave the third stroke is on count 7 of the first half, and in Rumba Clave, on count 8 of the first half. This small change has a huge effect on the overall feeling of the pattern. Notice that the third stroke of Rumba Clave in still in the first half of the pattern, but is actually closer in time to the fourth stroke than the second. (There are three empty counts preceding the third stroke and two empty counts following it.)

Web note 3

It is helpful to feel the second and third strokes of this pattern as though they precede counts rather than coming after counts – that is, the second Clave stroke is before count 3 rather than after count 2 and the third stroke is before a count of 1, instead of after a count of 4. There is no difference in how the pattern is played, this is just my suggestion for helping you to conceptualize the pattern and feel what is going on in the music.

Web note 4

These are the same syllables as the 16th note count of Rumba Clave ! “One, Uh, Uh, An, Four.” Only the strokes that fall on the counts “One” and “Four” occur at the same point in time in both patterns. The triplet “Uh and “An” occur at slightly different times relative to the 16th notes. Use this map of counting and syllables to learn to feel the exact placement of Clave strokes in triplet subdivision, then change to sixteenth note counting while keeping the four pulse constant. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th Clave strokes will change slightly. Practice changing from one feeling to the other without counting, and even learn to play in-between, as often happens in AfroCuban and other music.

  • EXTRA CREDIT: Practice playing triplet patterns against the Rumba Clave grooves or 4-4 patterns against the AbaCua Clave grooves! The four pulse is your guide.
Web note 5

In case there was any doubt, embodiment of the Clave pattern is the entire goal of this lesson. All the counting and mind work is meaningless unless you use it to learn what the patterns feel like. Take your time, listen to the groove sessions, play along, check yourself to see if you are really doing what you think you are.

I am a perfect example of someone who has learned to embody Clave. I did not grow up in an environment where Clave was played or known.  I was first exposed to Clave through American music as a youngster growing up on the West Coast of the USA. I learned African music in college and did my own work to get these patterns into my body. These Clave Consciousness lessons are the same ones I used to transform myself and my experience of music.

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