Clave History and Meaning

Clave [pronounced kla’-veh] is the essential code to many styles of percussion based music, music which is formed of separate, repeating, interlocking rhythmic cells. Clave is both the keystone that holds all the pieces in balance and the guide to the sonic landscape. It is a clue to the puzzle of how the pieces fit, and the cornerstone of the music structure.

Clave Consciousness is my term to describe my awareness and understanding of this key rhythmic principle. I encountered it in Nigerian and Ghanaian drumming and songs, Cuban music, Latin Jazz jam sessions, Brazilian music, drum circle and more. Within Clave based music, embodiment of and expression within this key pattern is an essential goal. The rhythms of the world that are based on Clave display endless ingenuity, grace, beauty and simplicity.

Musicians work with Clave accents in a nearly unlimited number of ways to build and vary patterns. As a Clave based rhythm deepens through repetition, layers of alternating suspension and resolution come into play, expanding the groove. Slight variations become extremely powerful and a soloist can easily create interest. This is the magic of playing in Clave.

  • In its everyday usage, “clave” is a Spanish adjective for “key” or “essential”

    cuestión clave → key question

    palabra clave → keyword

    es una fecha clave para la empresa → it’s a crucial date for the company

    Clave as “key” is also a noun, as in

    La presidenta dijo en su discurso que la determinación es la clave del éxito →
    The president said in her speech that determination is the key to success.

    and as the clef sign in music notation, which is the key to the five line musical staff.

    Tienes que saber cómo leer tanto la clave de fa que la de sol para tocar el piano →
    You have to know how to read both the bass and the treble clefs to play piano.

    Clave also means code, a noun :

    ¿Conoces la clave de acceso del edificio? → Do you know the building access code?

    Se me olvido la clave → I forgot the password.

    la clave del caja fuerte → the code to the safe

    mensaje cn clave → coded message

    Clave means the keystone of an arch – a great advancement in architecture.

    Colocaron la clave para completar el arco → They placed the keystone to complete the arch.

Clave in African Diaspora music refers to three things:

  1. the common hard wood percussion sticks,
  2. a family of rhythm patterns often played on those sticks, and most importantly,
  3. the guiding principle or key for all the instruments and dancers.

The use of the word Clave as a contemporary musical term is most connected with Cuba, where Clave is so important in the folkloric and popular music that is could be considered a philosophy or musical approach. The influence and popularity of Cuban Music in America and around the world has lead to the use of the term “Clave” by non-Cuban percussionists, dancers and rhythm enthusiasts.

Clave like patterns exist in many forms of music and are heard as bass lines, horn parts, melodies, solo and accompaniment rhythms for guitar, voice or piano. Clave patterns are used as breaks and cues as well as percussion parts.

In parts of the world where people do not use the word “Clave”, a musician might refer to a Clave-like pattern as “the agogo rhythm for Maculele”, “a caixa pattern for Samba”, “a gankogui pattern for Highlife” or “the sangba part for Dansa”. I use the Cuban word “Clave” to create a unified concept for describing, measuring, recognizing and distinguishing patterns in African Diaspora music.

How does Clave work?

The Clave accents fall on, right before, and right after certain beats – in specific proportion and sequence – generating an interlocked sonic field that naturally builds momentum into a tight, smooth, insistent groove that inspires the singers and dancers.

The five, irregularly placed Clave accents shape the feeling of the groove. They give power and swing to the regular four beat pulse underlying the music.

Your job, with this set of lessons, is to learn to play and hold – in your body – this sequence with its specific proportions, as multiple layers of rhythm are added. The more you focus on Clave, the more you will start to realize the organizing principle at work. After internalizing Clave patterns, you’ll begin using them as a reference point to measure and contrast other patterns. My Speaking of Rhythm™ series teaches you this by showing you how to speak drum patterns while clapping the Clave rhythm.

My ‘Clave Consciousness’ project overview

“I love Kim’s ‘Clave Consciousness’ lessons. It’s a must have for any serious player, and for the drum circle facilitator it puts all universal rhythms into perspective.”
– Arthur Hull