If you've danced salsa or have listened to salsa music before, then you've heard the clave, even if you might not know what it is. The clave refers to both a musical instrument and a specific rhythm that is found in many Afro-Carribean songs, and is one of the key ingredients that makes salsa music salsa.
Simply put, claves are a set of two cylindrical sticks or dowels, that are clapped together to produce a rhythm. Claves are used in many salsa songs, and if you see a salsa band performing live, you will often see a musician whose sole job is to play the clave and set the tempo for the rest of the band.
Like salsa music itself, the clave has its origins in Cuba. In Spanish, the word clave means "key" and clave sticks were used as the bolts that held ships together in the pre-Industrial age. In these shipyards in Cuba, dockworkers would often bang these clave sticks together to make music and from there the clave went on to be used by musicians playing son and guaguanco, and eventually salsa.
The rhythm itself has its origins in Africa, where similar beats can be found to this day. The clave rhythm, like many other African rhythms, were brought to Cuba and the Americas via the slave trade, and gradually found itself into local music as the slaves were emancipated and the cultures began to mix.
The clave has been called the synchopated metronome or heartbeat of salsa music. The clave rhythm can be found in almost all salsa music, whether the clave is played explicitly or it is found implicitly within the mixture of the other rhythms.
There are two common rhythms that are associated with the clave:
The first is the rumba clave which is the rhythm found in most salsa songs. It is a distinctive beat that salsa dancers will often clap in time to the music. The sheet music above lists the exact timing of the rumba clave, but if you're not a musician, this video provides an easy to follow example of the rumva clave beat.
The second type of clave is the son clave. The son clave gets its name from Cuban Son, a type of music which predates salsa, and the son clave is a rhythm found in popular Cuban music even to this day. Here is a video with an example of the son clave: How to play son clave.
Playing the clave is pretty simple, and does not require extensive training.
If you're right-handed, you will want to cup the clave stick lightly with your left hand so that only your fingers are touching. This will allow the clave stick to resonate properly and produce a loud sound.
With your right hand, hold the other clave stick towards the bottom of the stick in a firm grip, and stabilizing the stick with your thumb (see the image above). Then strike the clave in your left hand towards the center of the stick to create the most resonance.
That's it. Practice until you can get a good volume from the clave. If you are left-handed, do the opposite of the instructions above. Also note that different clave sticks produce different sounds and resonance.
If you're looking for a clear example of clave and how it's used in salsa music, listen to Ritmo Nuevo ("New Rhythm") by Chaparro Y Su Orquesta. This song starts off with the 3-2 son clave, and then incorporates the rhythm into the rest of the song. If you start looking for the clave, you'll find that it's everywhere in salsa music!