Clave (rhythm)

Clave (rhythm)
Three of the four main forms of clave. About this sound Play son About this sound Play rumba About this sound Play 6/8

The clave rhythmic pattern is used as a tool for temporal organization in Afro-Cuban music, such as rumba, conga de comparsa, son, son montuno, mambo, salsa, Latin jazz, songo and timba. The five-stroke clave pattern represents the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms.[1] Just as a keystone holds an arch in place, the clave pattern holds the rhythm together in Afro-Cuban music.[2] The clave pattern originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions, where it serves essentially the same function as it does in Cuba. The pattern is also found in the African diaspora musics of Haitian vodou drumming, Afro-Brazilian music and Afro-Uruguayan music (Candombe). The clave pattern is used in North American popular music as a rhythmic motif or ostinato, or simply a form of rhythmic decoration.



Playing a pair of claves

Anglicized pronunciation: clah-vay

Clave is a Spanish word meaning 'code,' 'key,' as in key to a mystery or puzzle, or 'keystone,' the wedge-shaped stone in the center of an arch that ties the other stones together. Clave is also the name of the patterns played on claves; two hardwood sticks used in Afro-Cuban music ensembles.—Peñalosa (2009: 81)[2]

The key to Afro-Cuban rhythm

The two main clave patterns used in Afro-Cuban music outside Cuba are the son clave and the rumba clave.[3] Both are used as bell patterns across much of Africa.[4][5][6][7] Son and rumba clave can be played in either a triple-pulse [12/8 or 6/8] or duple-pulse [4/4, 2/4 or 2/2] structure.[2] The contemporary Cuban practice is to write the duple-pulse clave in a single measure of 4/4.[8] "Clave" is also written in a single measure in ethnomusicological writings about African music.[9]

son and rumba clave in simple and compound meter variants.

Although they subdivide the beats differently, the 12/8 and 4/4 versions of each clave share the same pulse names. The correlation between the triple-pulse and duple-pulse forms of clave, as well as other patterns, is an important dynamic of sub-Saharan-based rhythm. Every triple-pulse pattern has its duple-pulse correlative.

Son clave has strokes on: 1, 1a, 2&, 3&, 4.


1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a ||
X . X . X . . X . X . . ||


1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a ||
X . . X . . X . . . X . X . . . ||

Rumba clave has strokes on: 1, 1a, 2a, 3&, 4.


1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a ||
X . X . . X . X . X . . ||


1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a ||
X . . X . . . X . . X . X . . . ||

Both clave patterns are used in rumba. What we now call son clave (also known as Havana clave) used to be the key pattern played in Havana-style yambú and guaguancó.[10] Some Havana-based rumba groups still use "son clave" for yambú.[11] The musical genre known as son probably borrowed the clave pattern from rumba when it migrated from eastern Cuba to Havana at the beginning of the 20th century.

During the nineteenth century, African music and European music sensibilities were blended together in original Cuban hybrids. Cuban popular music became the conduit through which sub-Saharan rhythmic elements were first codified within the context of European ('Western') music theory. The first written music rhythmically based on clave was the Cuban danzón, which premiered in 1879. The contemporary concept of clave with its accompanying terminology reached its full development in Cuban popular music during the 1940s. Its application has since spread to folkloric music as well. In a sense, the Cubans standardized their myriad rhythms, both folkloric and popular, by relating nearly all of them to the clave pattern. The veiled code of African rhythm was brought to light due to clave’s omnipresence. Consequently, the term clave has come to mean both the five-stroke pattern and the total matrix it exemplifies. In other words, the rhythmic matrix is the clave matrix. Clave is the key that unlocks the enigma; it de-codes the rhythmic puzzle. It’s commonly understood that the actual clave pattern does not need to be played in order for the music to be 'in clave.'—Peñalosa (2009: 81)[2]

One of the most difficult applications of the clave is in the realm of composition and arrangement of Cuban and Cuban-based dance music. Regardless of the instrumentation, the music for all of the instruments of the ensemble must be written with a very keen and conscious rhythmic relationship to the clave . . . Any ‘breaks’ and/or ‘stops’ in the arrangements must also be ‘in clave’. If these procedures are not properly taken into consideration, then the music is 'out of clave' which, if not done intentionally, is considered an error. When the rhythm and music are ‘in clave,’ a great natural ‘swing’ is produced, regardless of the tempo. All musicians who write and/or interpret Cuban-based music must be ‘clave conscious,’ not just the percussionists.—Santos (1986: 32)[12]

Clave theory

There are three main branches of what could be called clave theory. First is the set of concepts and related terminology, which were created and developed, in Cuban popular music from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. In Popular Cuban Music (1939), Emilio Grenet defined in general terms, how the duple-pulse clave pattern guided all members of the music ensemble.[13] The most important Cuban contribution to this branch of music theory is the concept of the clave as the period (music), containing two rhythmically opposing halves; the first is antecedent, moving, and the second is consequent, grounded.

The second branch comes from the ethnomusicological studies of sub-Saharan African rhythm. In 1959 Arthur Morris Jones published his landmark work Studies in African Music. Jones identified the triple-pulse "clave" as the guide pattern for many musics, from different ethnic groups across Africa.[14] The most important contribution of ethnomusicology to clave theory is the understanding that the clave matrix is generated by cross-rhythm.

The third branch comes from the United States. Ironically, there are more books published about Cuban-based music in the US than in Cuba itself. Perhaps because North Americans come to the music as outsiders, there has been more of a need to explain the intricacies of the music. The most important North American contribution to clave theory is the worldwide propagation of the 3-2/2-3 concept and terminology, which arose from the fusion of Cuban rhythms with jazz in New York City.

Only in the last couple of decades have these three branches of clave theory begun to reconcile their shared and conflicting concepts. This article addresses the main tenets of each branch of clave theory, where they coincide and where they differ.


Son clave

The most common clave pattern used in Cuban popular music is called the son clave, named after the Cuban musical genre of the same name.

Son clave 3 side and 2 side-B.png

Clave is the basic period (music), composed of two rhythmically opposed cells, one antecedent and the other consequent. Clave was initially written in two measures of 2/4 in Cuban music.[15] When written this way, each cell or clave half is represented within a single measure.


Anglicized pronunciation: tray-see-yo. The antecedent half has three strokes and is called the three-side of clave. In Cuban popular music, the first three strokes of son clave are also known collectively as tresillo, a Spanish word meaning 'triplet' (three equal beats in the same time as two main beats). However, in the vernacular of Cuban popular music, the term refers to the figure shown below.

Tresillo divisive.png

The consequent half (second measure above) of clave has two strokes and is called the two-side.

Going only slightly into the rhythmic structure of our music we find that all its melodic design is constructed on a rhythmic pattern of two measures, as though both were only one, the first is antecedent, strong, and the second is consequent, weak.—Grenet (1939)[13]

[With] clave . . . the two measures are not at odds, but rather, they are balanced opposites like positive and negative, expansive and contractive or the poles of a magnet. As the pattern is repeated, an alternation from one polarity to the other takes place creating pulse and rhythmic drive. Were the pattern to be suddenly reversed, the rhythm would be destroyed as in a reversing of one magnet within a series. . .the patterns are held in place according to both the internal relationships between the drums and their relationship with clave. . .Should the drums fall out of clave (and in contemporary practice they sometimes do) the internal momentum of the rhythm will be dissipated and perhaps even broken.—Amira and Cornelius (1992: 23, 24)[16]

"3-2"/"2-3" clave concept and terminology

In Cuban popular music, a chord progression can begin on either side of clave. When the progression begins on the three-side, the song or song section is said to be in 3-2 clave. When the chord progression begins on the two-side, it is in 2-3 clave. In North America, salsa and Latin jazz charts commonly represent clave in two measures of cut-time (2/2); this is most likely the influence of jazz conventions.[17] When clave is written in two measures changing from one clave sequence to the other is a matter of reversing the order of the measures.

Son clave cut-time 3-2 & 2-3.png

The 3-2/2-3 concept and terminology was developed in New York City during the 1940s by Cuban-born Mario Bauza while he was the music director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans.[18] Bauzá was a master at moving the song from one side of clave to the other (for example: "Que vengan los rumberos"). Tito Puente learned the concept from Bauzá.[18] Tito Puente's "Philadelphia Mambo" is an example of a song that moves from one side of clave to the other. The technique eventually became a staple of composing and arranging in salsa and Latin jazz.

Within the 3-2/2-3 framework, the harmonic structure is the prime referent, rather than clave.[19] Cuban folkloric musicians do not use the 3-2/2-3 system. Many Cuban performers of popular music do not use it either. The great Cuban conga player and band leader Mongo Santamaria said: "Don’t tell me about 3-2 or 2-3! In Cuba we just play. We feel it, we don’t talk about such things."[20] "In Cuba we don’t think about [clave]. We know that we’re in clave. Because we know that we have to be in clave to be a musician."[21] According to Cuban pianist Sonny Bravo, the late Charlie Palmieri would insist: "There’s no such thing as 3-2 or 2-3, there’s only one clave!"[22] The contemporary Cuban bassist, composer and arranger Alain Pérez flatly states: "In Cuba we do not use that 2-3, 3-2 formula . . . 2-3, 3-2 [is] not used in Cuba. That is how people learn Cuban music outside Cuba."[23]

Rumba clave

The other main clave pattern is the rumba clave. Rumba clave is the key pattern used in rumba. Use of the triple-pulse form of rumba clave in Cuba can be traced back to the iron bell (ekón) part in abakuá music. The form of rumba known as columbia is culturally and musically connected with abakuá. Columbia also uses this pattern. Sometimes 12/8 rumba clave is clapped in the accompaniment of Cuban batá drums. The 4/4 form of rumba clave is used in yambú, guaguancó and popular music.

Rumba clave-B.png

There is some debate as to how the 4/4 rumba clave should be notated for guaguancó and yambú. In actual practice, the third stroke on the three-side and the first stroke on the two-side often fall in rhythmic positions that do not fit neatly into music notation.[24] Triple-pulse strokes can be substituted for duple-pulse strokes. Also the clave strokes are sometimes displaced in such a way that they don't fall within either a triple-pulse or duple-pulse "grid."[25] Therefore, many variations are possible.

When used in popular music (such as songo, timba or Latin jazz) rumba clave can be perceived in either a 3-2 or 2-3 sequence. The example below shows rumba clave in 3-2 and 2-3 sequence, written in cut-time as it would be typically represented in a North American salsa or Latin jazz chart.

Rumba clave cut-time 3 & 2.png

The first regular use of rumba clave in Cuban popular music began with the mozambique (music), created by Pello el Afrokan in the early 1960s.

Standard bell pattern

The seven-stroke standard bell pattern contains the strokes of both clave patterns. Some North American musicians call this pattern clave.[26][27] Other North American musicians refer to the triple-pulse form as the 6/8 bell because they write the pattern in two measures of 6/8. Like clave, the standard pattern is expressed in both triple and duple-pulse.

Standard pattern.png

The standard pattern has strokes on: 1, 1a, 2& 2a, 3&, 4, 4a.


1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a ||
X . X . X X . X . X . X ||


1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a ||
X . . X . . X X . . X . X . . X ||

The ethnomusicologist A.M. Jones observes that what we call son clave, rumba clave and the standard pattern are the most commonly used key patterns (also called bell patterns, timeline patterns and guide patterns) in Sub-Saharan African music traditions and he considers all three to be basically one and the same pattern.[28] Clearly, they are all expressions of the same rhythmic principles. The three key patterns are found within a large geographic belt extending from Mali in northwest Africa to Mozambique in southeast Africa.[29]

"6/8 clave"

In Afro-Cuban folkloric genres the triple-pulse (12/8 or 6/8) rumba clave is the archetypal form of the guide pattern. Even when the drums are playing in duple-pulse (4/4), as in guaguancó, the clave is often played with displaced strokes that are closer to triple-pulse than duple-pulse.[30] "The proper feel of this [rumba clave] rhythm, is actually closer to triple meter”—John Santos (1986: 33).[31]

Conversely, in salsa and Latin jazz, especially as played in North America, 4/4 is the basic framework and 6/8 is considered something of a novelty and in some cases, an enigma. The cross-rhythmic structure (multiple beat schemes) is frequently misunderstood to be metrically ambiguous. North American musicians often refer to Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm as a feel, a term usually reserved for those aspects of musical nuance not practically suited for analysis. As used by North American musicians, "6/8 clave" can refer to one of three types of triple-pulse key patterns.

6-8 clave -B.png

Triple-pulse standard pattern

When one hears triple-pulse rhythms in Latin jazz the percussion is most often replicating the Afro-Cuban rhythm bembé. The standard bell is the key pattern used in bembé and so with compositions based on triple-pulse rhythms, it is the seven-stroke bell, rather than the five-stroke clave that is the most familiar to jazz musicians. Consequently, some North American musicians refer to the triple-pulse standard pattern as "6/8 clave."[26][27]

Triple-pulse rumba clave

Some refer to the triple-pulse form of rumba clave as "6/8 clave." When rumba clave is written in 6/8 the four underlying main beats are counted: 1, 2, 1, 2.

Two major forms of clave and one 6/8 form About this sound Play 6/8 clave .
1 & a 2 & a |1 & a 2 & a ||
X . X . . X |. X . X . . ||

Claves . . . are not usually played in Afro-Cuban 6/8 feels . . . [and] the clave [pattern] is not traditionally played in 6/8 though it may be helpful to do so to relate the clave to the 6/8 bell pattern.—Thress (1994: 9)[32]

6-8 clave as triplets in 4/4 About this sound Play . Note that the 6-8 cowbell pattern is the clave but with and pickups before the first and third notes, and that hi-hat has been added on the main beats (quarter-notes).[32]

Triple-pulse son clave

Triple-pulse son clave is the least common form of clave used in Cuban music. It is however, found across an enormously vast area of sub-Saharan Africa. The first published example (1920) of this pattern identified it as a hand-clap part accompanying a song from Mozambique.[33]

Because 6/8 clave-based music is generated from cross-rhythm, it is possible to count or “feel” the 6/8 clave in several different ways. The ethnomusicologist A.M. Jones correctly identified the importance of this key pattern, but he mistook its accents as indicators of meter rather than the counter-metric phenomena they actually are. Similarly, while Anthony King identified the triple-pulse "son clave" as the ‘standard pattern’ in its simplest and most basic form, he did not correctly identify its metric structure.[34]

It wasn't until African musicologists like C.K. Ladzekpo entered into the discussion in the 1970s and 80s that the metric structure of sub-Saharan rhythm was unambiguously defined. The writings of Victor Kofi Agawu and David Locke must also be mentioned in this regard.[35][36]

In the diagram below 6/8 (son) clave is shown on top and a beat cycle is shown below it. Any or all of these structures may be the emphasis at a given point in a piece of music using the "6/8 clave."

Different ways to count the 6/8 clave, the first of which is correct About this sound Play .

The example on the left (6/8) represents the correct count and ground of the "6/8 clave."[37] The four dotted quarter-notes across the two bottom measures are the main beats. All clave patterns are built upon four main beats.[38][39][40] The bottom measures on the other two examples (3/2 and 6/4) show cross-beats. Observing the dancer’s steps almost always reveals the main beats of the music. Because the main beats are usually emphasized in the steps and not the music, it is often difficult for an "outsider" to feel the proper metric structure without seeing the dance component.

For cultural insiders, identifying the . . . ‘dance feet’ occurs instinctively and spontaneously. Those not familiar with the choreographic supplement, however, sometimes have trouble locating the main beats and expressing them in movement. Hearing African music on recordings alone without prior grounding in its dance-based rhythms may not convey the choreographic supplement. Not surprisingly, many misinterpretations of African rhythm and meter stem from a failure to observe the dance.
—Agawu, (2003: 73)[41]

In non-Cuban music

Controversy over use and origins

Perhaps the greatest testament to the musical vitality of the clave is the spirited debate it engenders, both in terms of musical usage and historical origins. This section presents examples from non-Cuban music, which some musicians (not all) hold to be representative of clave. The most common claims, those of Brazilian and subsets of American popular music, are described below.

A widely used African bell pattern

Clave is a Spanish word and its musical usage as a pattern played on claves was developed in the western part of Cuba, particularly the cities of Matanzas and Havana.[42] Some writings have claimed that the clave patterns originated in Cuba. One frequently repeated theory is that the triple-pulse African bell patterns morphed into duple-pulse forms as a result of the influence of European musical sensibilities. "The duple meter feel [of 4/4 rumba clave] may have been the result of the influence of marching bands and other Spanish styles . . ."— Washburne (1995).[43]

However, the duple-pulse forms have existed in sub-Saharan Africa for centuries. The patterns the Cubans call clave are two of the most common bell parts used in Sub-Saharan African music traditions. Natalie Curtis,[44] A.M. Jones,[45] Anthony King[5] and John Collins[6] document the triple-pulse forms of what we call “son clave” and “rumba clave” in West, Central and East Africa. Francis Kofi[46] and C.K. Ladzekpo[47] document several Ghanaian rhythms that use the triple or duple-pulse forms of "son clave." Royal Harington[48] identifies the duple-pulse form of "rumba clave" as a bell pattern used by the Yoruba and Ibo of Nigeria, West Africa. There are many recordings of traditional African music where one can hear the five-stroke "clave" used as a bell pattern.[49]

Tresillo in Middle Eastern and Asian music

There are also rhythms resembling the clave found in parts of the Middle East and Southern Asia. The most common clave-related pattern found within a wide geographic belt stretching from Morocco in North Africa to Indonesia in South Asia is the single-celled figure the Cubans call tresillo:

Tresillo divisive.png

Tresillo is used in many different types of music across the entire continent of Africa. Use of the pattern in Moroccan music can be traced back to slaves brought north across the Sahara Desert from present-day Mali. This pattern may have migrated east from North Africa to Asia through the spread of Islam.[50]

African-based music has a divisive rhythm structure.[51] Tresillo is generated through cross-rhythm: 8 pulses ÷ 3 = 2 cross-beats (consisting of three pulses each), with a remainder of a partial cross-beat (spanning two pulses). In other words, 8 ÷ 3 = 2, r2.

In Middle East and Asian music the figure is generated through additive rhythm, 3+3+2:

Tresillo additive.png

Although the difference between the two ways of notating this rhythm may seem small, they stem from fundamentally different conceptions. Those who wish to convey a sense of the rhythm’s background [main beats], and who understand the surface morphology in relation to a regular subsurface articulation, will prefer the divisive format. Those who imagine the addition of three, then three, then two sixteenth notes will treat the well-formedness of 3+3+2 as fortuitous, a product of grouping rather than of metrical structure. They will be tempted to deny that African music has a bona fide metrical structure because of its frequent departures from normative grouping structure.—Agawu (2003: 87)[52]

In divisive form, the strokes of tresillo contradict the beats. In additive form, the strokes of tresillo are the beats. From a metrical perspective then, the two ways of perceiving tresillo constitute two different rhythms. On the other hand, from the perspective of simply the pattern of attack-points, tresillo is a shared element of traditional folk music from the northwest tip of Africa to southeast tip of Asia. Today through the global spread if hip-hop music we hear the tresillo bass drum superimposed over traditional genres in dance clubs across the vast Africa-Asia "tresillo-belt."

Guide-patterns in Cuban versus non-Cuban music

There is some debate as to whether or not clave, as it appears in Cuban music, functions in the same way as its sister rhythms in other forms of music (Brazilian, North American and African). Certain forms of Cuban music demand a strict relationship between the clave and other musical parts, even across genres. This same structural relationship between the guide-pattern and the rest of the ensemble is easily observed in many sub-Saharan rhythms, as well as rhythms from Haiti and Brazil. However, the 3-2/2-3 concept and terminology is limited to certain types of Cuban-based popular musics and is not used in the music of Africa, Haiti, Brazil or in Afro-Cuban folkloric music. In American pop music the clave pattern tends to be used as an element of rhythmic color, rather than a guide-pattern and as such is superimposed over many types of rhythms.

In Brazilian music

Some musicians claim that clave also exists in Brazilian music. Both Cuba and Brazil imported Yoruba, Fon and Congolese slaves. Therefore, it is not surprising that we find the bell pattern the Cubans call clave in the Afro-Brazilian musics of Candomblé, Macumba and Maculelê (dance).[53] "Son clave" and "rumba clave" are also used as a tamborim part in some batucada arrangements. Although a few contemporary Brazilian musicians have adopted the 3-2/2-3 terminology, it is traditionally not a part of the Brazilian rhythmic concept.

About this sound Example in a Pixinguinha choro music

Bossa nova pattern

The so-called "bossa nova clave" (or "Brazilian clave") has a similar rhythm to that of the son clave, but the second note on the two-side is delayed by one pulse (subdivision). The rhythm is typically played as a snare rim pattern in bossa nova music. The pattern is shown below in 2/4, as it is written in Brazil. In North American charts it is more likely to be written in cut-time.

Bossa nova pattern.png

According to drummer Bobby Sanabria the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, who developed the pattern, considers it to be merely a rhythmic motif and not a clave (guide pattern). Jobim later regretted that Latino musicians misunderstood the role of this bossa nova pattern.[54]

Other Brazilian examples

The examples below are transcriptions of several patterns resembling the Cuban clave that are found in various styles of Brazilian music, on the ago-gô and surdo instruments.

Legend: Time signature: 2/4; L=low bell, H=high bell, O = open surdo hit, X = muffled surdo hit, and | divides the measure:

  • Style: Samba 3:2; LL.L.H.H|L.L.L.H. (More common 3:2: .L.L.H.H|L.L.L.H.)
  • Style: Maracatu 3:2; LH.HL.H.|L.H.LH.H
  • Style: Samba 3:2; L|.L.L..L.|..L..L.L|
  • Instrument: 3rd Surdo 2:3; X...OO.O|X...O.O.
  • Variation of samba style: Partido Alto 2:3; L.H..L.L|.H..L.L.
  • Style: Maracatu 2:3; L.H.L.H.|LH.HL.H.
  • Style: Samba-Reggae or Bossanova 3:2; O..O..O.|..O..O..
  • Style: Ijexa 3:2; LL.L.LL.|L.L.L.L. (HH.L.LL.|H.H.L.L.)

For 3rd example above, the clave pattern is based on a common accompaniment pattern played by the guitarist. B=bass note played by guitarist's thumb, C=chord played by fingers.

&|1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &|1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &||
C|B C . C B . C .|B . C . B C . C||

The singer enters on the wrong side of the clave and the ago-gô player adjusts accordingly. This recording cuts off the first bar so that it sounds like the bell comes in on the third beat of the second bar. This is suggestive of a pre-determined rhythmic relationship between the vocal part and the percussion, and supports the idea of a clave-like structure in Brazilian music.

In Jamaican and French Caribbean music

The son clave rhythm is present in Jamaican mento music, and can be heard on 1950s-era recordings such as "Don’t Fence Her In", "Green Guava" or "Limbo" by Lord Tickler, "Mango Time" by Count Lasher, "Linstead Market/Day O" by The Wigglers, "Bargie" by The Tower Islanders, "Nebuchanezer" by Laurel Aitken and others. The Jamaican population is partly of the same origin (Congo) as many Cubans, which perhaps explains the shared rhythm. It is also heard frequently in Martinique's biguine. Just as likely however is the possibility that claves and the clave rhythm spread to Jamaica, Trinidad and the other small islands of the Caribbean through the popularity of Cuban son recordings from the 1920s onward.

In North American music

The clave rhythm has been used in North American musical genres (jazz, R&B, rock and roll, funk and hip-hop) since the 1920s. One of its earliest manifestations was the Charleston dance and James P. Johnson's "Charleston" song. The song's driving rhythm, basically the first bar of a 3 2 clave, came to have widespread use in jazz and is still referenced by name by musicians.

Single-celled tresillo pattern in African American music

However, the borrowing of Cuban musical motifs began in the 1800s with the popularity of the Cuban contradanza (known outside of Cuba as the habanera). Musicians from Havana and New Orleans would take the twice-daily ferry between both cities to perform and not surprisingly, the habanera quickly took root in the musically fertile Crescent City. Whether tresillo was directly transplanted from Cuba, or if the habanera merely reinforced tresillo-like "rhythmic tendencies" already present in New Orleans music is probably impossible to determine. There are examples of tresillo-like rhythms in a few African American folk musics such as the foot stomping patterns in ring shout and the post-Civil War drum and fife music.[55] Tresillo is also heard prominently in New Orleans second line music.

[There] is an absence of drums and complex polyrhythms in early blues; there is, in addition, the very specific absence of . . . timeline patterns in virtually all early twentieth-century U.S. African American music, except in cases where these patterns were borrowed from Puerto Rico or Cuba. Only in New Orleans genres does a hint of simple timeline patterns [occur]. . . These do not function in the same way as African timeline patterns.—Kubik (1999: 51)[56]

The symphonic work "A Night in the Tropics" (1860) by New Orleans musician Louis Moreau Gottschalk was influenced by the composer's studies in Cuba.[57] Because of the popularity of the habanera, the tresillo pattern and a variant known as the habanera rhythm were adopted into European art music. For example Georges Bizet's opera Carmen (1874) has a famous habanera movement.

Habanera (clave).png

The habanera rhythm (above) consists of tresillo combined with the second main beat (known in North America as the backbeat). The habanera is also known as the congo,[58] tango-congo,[59] and tango.[60]

Tresillo and the habanera are two of the most fundamental rhythmic motifs of ragtime. Early ragtime pianists would buy habanera sheet music and then interpret them as ragtime pieces.[61] Scott Joplin's "Solace" (1909) is considered a habanera. For the more than quarter-century in which the cakewalk, ragtime and proto-jazz were forming and developing, the habanera was a consistent part of African American popular music.[62] Early New Orleans jazz bands had habaneras in their repertoire and the tresillo/habanera was a rhythmic staple of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. For example "St. Louis Blues" (1914) by W.C. Handy has a tresillo bass line. Jelly Roll Morton considered the tresillo/habanera (which he called the Spanish tinge) to be an essential ingredient of jazz. The two rhythmic figures can be heard in his left hand on songs like "The Crave" (1910, recorded 1938).

Now in one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues,” you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.—Morton (1938: Library of Congress Recording)[63]

James P. Johnson's influential "Charleston" rhythm is based on tresillo. Johnson said he learned the rhythm from dockworkers in the South Carolina city of the same name. Although the exact origins of jazz syncopation may never be known, there’s evidence that the habanera/tresillo was there at its conception. Buddy Bolden, the first known jazz musician, is credited with creating the big four, a tresillo/habanera-based pattern. The big four (below) was the first syncopated bass drum pattern to deviate from the standard on-the-beat march.[64] As the example below shows, the second half of the big four pattern is the habanera rhythm.

Big four Buddy Bolden.png

It is probably safe to say that by and large the simpler African rhythmic patterns survived in jazz . . . because they could be adapted more readily to European rhythmic conceptions. Some survived, others were discarded as the Europeanization progressed. It may also account for the fact that patterns such as [tresillo have] . . . remained one of the most useful and common syncopated patterns in jazz.—Schuller (1968: 19)[65]

In the late 1940s R&B music borrowed tresillo directly from Cuban music.

New Orleans producer-bandleader Dave Bartholomew first employed this figure (as a saxophone-section riff) on his own 1949 disc "Country Boy" and subsequently helped make it the most over-used rhythmic pattern in 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. On numerous recordings by Fats Domino, Little Richard and others, Bartholomew assigned this repeating three-note pattern not just to the string bass, but also to electric guitars and even baritone sax, making for a very heavy bottom. He recalls first hearing the figure – as a bass pattern on a Cuban disc.—Palmer (1995: 60)[66]

In a 1988 interview with Robert Palmer (writer), Bartholomew revealed how he initially superimposed tresillo over swing rhythm.

I heard the bass playing that part on a 'rumba' record. On "Country Boy" I had my bass and drums playing a straight swing rhythm and wrote out that rumba bass part for the saxes to play on top of the swing rhythm. Later, especially after rock ‘n’ roll came along, I made the 'rumba' bass part heavier and heavier. I’d have the string bass, an electric guitar and a baritone all in unison.— Palmer (1988)[67]

Bartholomew referred to son by the misnomer rumba, a common practice of that time. On Bartholomew's 1949 tresillo-based "Oh Cubanas" we clearly hear an attempt to blend African American and Afro-Cuban music.

Two-celled clave pattern in African American music

Afro-Cuban music became the conduit through which African American music was "re-Africanized," through the borrowing of figures like clave and instruments like the conga drum, maracas and claves.[61] Although clave-like phrases are found in early twentieth-century African American music, the use of the clave pattern as a dominant rhythmic motif does not appear until the 1940s and 50s, coinciding with the rising popularity of Cuban music in the U.S.

The first jazz song to be overtly based in-clave was "Tanga" (1942) by Mario Bauza. Bauzá introduced be-bop innovator Dizzy Gillespie to the Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo. The short musical collaboration of Gillespie and Pozo introduced Cuban rhythms into mainstream jazz. However, their groundbreaking experiments did not always mesh rhythmically. For example, in their 1948 performance of "Manteca" the clave pattern is played in 3-2, while the rest of the band is in 2-3. The best attempts at superimposing jazz over a clave-based structure in the 1950s were perhaps achieved by Machito and his Afro-Cubans' big band (under the musical direction of Mario Bauzá) and the smaller Latin jazz combos of Cal Tjader (featuring drummers Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza and Willie Bobo).

In response to the popularity of the mambo, New Orleans musicians such as Dave Bartholomew and Professor Longhair incorporated Cuban instruments, as well as the clave pattern and related two-celled figures in songs such as "Carnival Day," (Bartholomew 1949) and "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" (Longhair). While some of these early experiments were awkward fusions, it wasn't long before the Afro-Cuban elements were integrated into the New Orleans sound.

The "Bo Diddley beat" (1955) is perhaps the first true fusion of clave and R&B/rock 'n' roll. It remains unclear where Bo Diddley first heard the rhythm. According to Bo Diddley himself in an interview published in French music magazine Best in 1990, his inspiration was American spirituals. Johnny Otis' "Willie and the Hand Jive" is another example of this successful blend. The song "Little Darling" is also built around clave. The bass riffs of "China Grove" by the Doobie Brothers use clave. The bass line in the 1973 arrangement of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" (from the album Head Hunters) is based on "son" clave. The Macarena uses clave. There are hundreds of other examples throughout jazz and popular music.

Odd meter "clave"

Technically speaking, the term odd meter clave is an oxymoron. Clave consists of two even halves, in a divisive structure of four main beats. However, in recent years jazz musicians from Cuba and outside of Cuba have been experimenting with creating new "claves" and related patterns in various odd meters. Clave which is traditionally used in a divisive rhythm structure, has inspired many new creative inventions in an additive rhythm context.

. . . I developed the concept of adjusting claves to other time signatures, with varying degrees of success. What became obvious to me quite quickly was that the closer I stuck to the general rules of clave the more natural the pattern sounded. Clave has a natural flow with certain tension and resolve points. I found if I kept these points in the new meters they could still flow seamlessly, allowing me to play longer phrases. It also gave me many reference points and reduced my reliance on "one."—Guilfoyle (2006: 10)[68]

Clave in 5/2

Clave in 5.png

"Clave" in 5/2 after Guilfoyle.[69]

Clave in 7/4

Clave in 7.png

"Clave" in 7/4 after Guilfoyle.[70]

Recommended listening

Here are some examples of recordings that use odd meter clave concepts.[71]

Dafnis Prieto About the Monks (Zoho). Sebastian Schunke Symbiosis (Pimienta Records). Paoli Mejias Mi Tambor (JMCD). John Benitez Descarga in New York (Khaeon). Deep Rumba A Calm in the Fire of Dances (American Clave). Nachito Herrera Bembe en mi casa (FS Music). Bobby Sanabria Quarteto Aché (Zoho). Julio Barretto Iyabo (3d). Michel Camilo Triangulo (Telarc). Samuel Torres Skin Tones ( Horacio "el Negro" Hernandez Italuba (Universal Latino). Tony Lujan Tribute (Bella Records). Edward Simon La bikina (Mythology). Jorge Sylvester In the Ear of the Beholder (Jazz Magnet).

See also


  1. ^ Gerhard Kubik cited by Agawu, Kofi (2006: 1-46). “Structural Analysis or Cultural Analysis? Comparing Perspectives on the ‘Standard Pattern’ of West African Rhythm” Journal of the American Musicological Society v. 59, n. 1.
  2. ^ a b c d Peñalosa, David (2009: 81). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
  3. ^ "There are just two claves—son clave and rumba clave"— Berroa, Ignacio (1996: Warner Brothers VHS). Mastering the Art Afro-Cuban Drumming.
  4. ^ Jones, A.M. (1959: 210, 212) Studies in African Music. London: Oxford University Press. 1978 edition: ISBN 0-19-713512-9.
  5. ^ a b King, Anthony (1960: 51-52) “The Employment of the Standard Pattern in Yoruba Music” American Music Society Journal.
  6. ^ a b Egblewogbe cited by Collins (2004: 29) African Musical Symbolism in Contemporary Perspective (Roots, Rhythms and Relativity) Berlin: Pro Business. ISBN 3-938262-15-X.
  7. ^ C.K. Ladzekpo quoted by Peñalosa (2009: 244)
  8. ^ Moore, Kevin (2010: 65) Beyond Salsa Piano; The Cuban Timba Revolution. v. 1 The Roots of the Piano Tumbao. Santa Cruz, CA: Kevin Moore. ISBN 978-1-4392-6584-0.
  9. ^ Peñalosa (2009: 250-251).
  10. ^ Centro de Investigación de la Música Cubana (1997: 63) Instrumentos de la Música Folclórico-Popular de Cuba v. 1. Havana: CIDMUD. Recorded examples of "son clave" used in guaguancó: “Ultima rumba," Festival in Havana, Piñiero, Ignacio with Carlos Embale (1955: CD). “Ague que va caer,” Patato y Totico, Patato (1968: CD).
  11. ^ Recorded examples of "son clave" used in yambú: “Ave Maria," Conjunto Folkloricó Nacional de Cuba, (1965: phonorecord).“Mama abuela,” Songs and Dances, Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó (1990: CD). “Maria Belen,” El callejon de los rumberos, Yoruba Andabo (1993: CD). “Chevere,” Déjala en la puntica, Conjunto Clave y Guaguancó (1996: CD). “Las lomas de Belén,” Buenavista en guaguagncó, Ecué Tumba (2001: CD).
  12. ^ Santos, John (1986) “The Clave: Cornerstone of Cuban Music” Modern Drummer Magazine p. 32 Sept.
  13. ^ a b Grenet, Emilio, translated by R. Phillips (1939). Popular Cuban Music New York: Bourne Inc.
  14. ^ Jones (1959: 3).
  15. ^ Mauleón, Rebeca (1999: 6) 101 Montunos. Petaluma, CA: Sher Publishing.
  16. ^ Amira and Cornelius (1992: 23, 24) The Music of Santeria; Traditional Rhythms of the Batá Drums. Tempe, AZ: White Cliffs. ISBN 0-941677-24-9
  17. ^ Mauleón, Rebeca (1993: 52) Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. Petaluma, California: Sher Music. ISBN 0-9614701-9-4.
  18. ^ a b Bobby Sanabria quoted by Peñalosa (2009: 252).
  19. ^ Peñalosa (2009: 130).
  20. ^ Mongo Santamaría, cited by Washburne, Christopher (2008: 190) Sounding Salsa; Performing Latin Music in New York City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press ISBN 1-59213-316-1.
  21. ^ Mongo Santamaría, cited by Gerard, Charley (2001: 49) Music from Cuba: Mongo Santamaria, Chocolate Armenteros, and Other Stateside Cuban Musicians. Praeger Publishers.
  22. ^ Sonny Bravo cited by Peñalosa (2009: 253).
  23. ^ Alain Pérez cited by Peñalosa (2009: 253).
  24. ^ "Rumba Clave: An Illustrated Analysis", Rumba Clave, BlogSpot. January 21, 2008. "One thing is certain: What you see in standard western notation as written-clave is a long way from what's actually played."
  25. ^ Spiro, Michael (2006: 38). The Conga Drummer's Guidebook. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music Co.
  26. ^ a b Mauleón (1999: 49)
  27. ^ a b Amira and Cornelius (1992: 23)
  28. ^ Jones, A.M. (1959: 211-212)
  29. ^ Peñalosa (2009: 53)
  30. ^ "Rumba Clave: An Illustrated Analysis", Rumba Clave, BlogSpot. January 21, 2008. ". . . as the tempo increased the clave would be played closer and closer to straight 12/8 . . ."
  31. ^ Santos (1986: 33)
  32. ^ a b Thress, Dan (1994). Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drumset, p.9. ISBN 0-89724-574-1.
  33. ^ Curtis, Natalie (1920: 98)
  34. ^ King, Anthony (1961:14). Yoruba Sacred Music from Ekiti. Ibadan University Press.
  35. ^ Agawu, Kofi (2003). Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions New York: Routledge.
  36. ^ Locke, David (1982). "Principles of Off-Beat Timing and Cross-Rhythm in Southern Ewe Dance Drumming” Society for Ethnomusicology Journal Nov. 11.
  37. ^ Novotney, Eugene D. (1998: 155). Thesis: The 3:2 Relationship as the Foundation of Timelines in West African Musics, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.
  38. ^ Novotney (1998: 250).
  39. ^ Mauleón (1993: 47).
  40. ^ Peñalosa (2009: 1-3).
  41. ^ Agawu, Kofi (2003: 73) Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions New York: Routledge.
  42. ^ Ortiz, Fernando (1950). La Africania De La Musica Folklorica De Cuba. Ediciones Universales, en español. Hardcover illustrated edition. ISBN 84-89750-18-1.
  43. ^ Washburne, Christopher (1995). "Clave: The African Roots of Salsa" Kainda, Fall.
  44. ^ Curtis, Natalie (1920: 98). Songs and Tales from the Dark Continent. New York: Dover Press.
  45. ^ Jones (1959: 212).
  46. ^ Kofi, Francis (1997: 30, 42). Traditional Dance Rhythms of Ghana v.1. Everett, PA: Honey Rock.
  47. ^ C.K. Ladzekpo cited by Peñalosa (2009: 244).
  48. ^ Harington, Royal (1995: 63) West African Rhythms for Drumset. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing.
  49. ^ Recorded examples of “son clave” in traditional music from Ghana and Benin: "Waka" (oge) Addy, Mustapha Tettey, The Royal Drums of Ghana (1991: CD). "Kpanlogo" and "Fumefume" Traditional Dance Rhythms of Ghana v.1, Kofi, Francis (1997: pp. 30, 42/CD). "Nago/Yoruba", Benin, Rhythms and Songs for the Vodun (1990: CD)
  50. ^ Peñalosa (2009: 236).
  51. ^ Novotney (1998: 100).
  52. ^ Agawu (2003: 87)
  53. ^ Recorded examples of “son clave” used in Brazilian Candomblé and Macumba rhythms: “Afro-Brazileiros” Batucada Fantastica v.4, Perrone, Luciano (1972: CD). “Avaninha / Vassi d'ogun” Musique du monde : Brésil Les eaux d'Oxala, (1982: CD). “Opanije” The Yoruba / Dahomean Collection, (1998: CD). “Popolougumde” Pontos de Macumba (1999: CD). Recorded example of “son clave” used in Brazilian maculule: “Maculule” Brazil Capoeira Pereira, Nazare (2003: CD).
  54. ^ Bobby Sanabria cited by Peñalosa (2009: 243).
  55. ^ Kubik, Gerhard (1999: 52). Africa and the Blues. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi.
  56. ^ Kubik (1999: 51).
  57. ^ Sublette, Ned (2008:125). Cuba and its Music; From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  58. ^ Manuel, Peter (2009: 69). Creolizing Contradance in the Caribbean. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  59. ^ Acosta, Leonardo (2003: 5). Cubano Be Cubano Bop; One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
  60. ^ (Mauleón 1999: 4)
  61. ^ a b Roberts, John Storm (1998). The Latin Tinge: The Impact Latin American Music on the United States[page needed]. New York: Oxford Press.
  62. ^ Roberts, John Storm (1999: 16) Latin Jazz. New York: Schirmer Books.
  63. ^ Morton, “Jelly Roll” (1938: Library of Congress Recording) The Complete Recordings By Alan Lomax.
  64. ^ Marsalis, Wynton (2000: DVD n.1). Jazz. PBS
  65. ^ Schuller, Gunther (1968:19) Early Jazz; Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford Press.
  66. ^ Palmer, Robert (1995:60). An Unruly History of Rock & Roll. New York: Oxford University Press.
  67. ^ Dave Bartholomew quoted by Palmer, Robert (1988) “The Cuban Connection” Spin Magazine p. 27 Nov.
  68. ^ Guilfoyle, Conor (2006: 10). Odd Meter Clave for Drumset; Expanding the Rhythmic Language of Cuba. Essen, Germany: Advance Music.
  69. ^ Guilfoyle (2006: 58)
  70. ^ Guilfoyle (2006: 41)
  71. ^ discography compiled by Guilfoyle (2006: 71)


  • Peñalosa, David (2009). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3
  • Peñalosa, David (2010). Rumba Quinto. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. ISBN 1-4537-1313-1.
  • Ortiz, Fernando (1950). La Africania De La Musica Folklorica De Cuba. Ediciones Universales, en español. Hardcover illustrated edition. ISBN 84-89750-18-1.
  • Mauleón, Rebeca (1993). Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. Petaluma, California: Sher Music. ISBN 0-9614701-9-4.

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