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Salsa: Ear Training

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Son Clave & the Clave Rhythm Stream: Core

Before we get underway, here's a word to the wise:
For the listening practices to follow, try to listen to the rhythm in its entirety, and try to listen without expectation.

You see, learning about clave is much anticipated amongst the most intelligent, committed, and ambitious of dancers. They understand clave's relevance in the music, and therefore in dancing. The urgency they feel, to find meaning in the rhythm immediately is often a hindrance. In looking at the details, they get so immersed that they lose perspective of the complete rhythm.

The practices below are designed to help you side-step that pitfall - as long as you free your mind from expectation. Learning and internalising clave is a process of weeks, not days, so take your time and you will be amply rewarded for your patience.

Now I hope you're sitting comfortably.

Listening Practice
Acclimatising to Clave

  • Listen to the track son_clave_only_165bpm.mp3 (7.3 Mb)
  • Keep your mind clear and let the rhythm flow over you.
  • Stay with it until you're comfortable with the rhythm and relaxed in its presence.
  • Take your time.

Actualising the Clave

  • Now imagine there's someone standing on a stage in front of you, with a set of clave in his or her hands.
  • Visualise the person on stage playing the clave, creating and producing the sound you're listening to.
  • Fill in the details of the image to include the timing and movement of his or her hands.
  • If the image is wearing a frown of concentration, give him or her a look of enjoyment instead.
  • Imagine the person's hands reproducing the rhythm effortlessly.

Personalising the Clave

  • Imagine that the person standing on the stage wears your clothes and has your face - imagine that the person is you.
  • Imagine your image playing the clave smoothly, effortlessly, accurately.

Realising Clave

  • Stand up and get a couple of pens or pencils (or clave if you have them), one in each hand.
  • Face your image and imagine you're looking into a mirror.
  • Play clave with your image, keeping in time with your mirror-self and the rhythm.
  • Smile.
  • Stay relaxed, and let your mirror image gradually fade away.
  • Keep playing.

The rhythm will resolve itself into a pattern consisting of two close-together strokes, and three evenly-spaced slower strokes. Something like:

click-click,  click…click…click

or the other way around,

click…click…click,  click-click

(Don't be concerned if the clave pattern remains unresolved, the next practice will soon clear that up.)

Resist the temptation to find your place in the rhythm, like where the "one" should be. For now, just accept the clave as it is - a rhythmic stream in which you are floating freely and un-anchored.

Rhythm Principles

Clave Rhythm Stream
The clave rhythm stream that you've been immersed in has two parts, consisting of: two close-together beats (called the 2-side); and three evenly-spaced slower beats (called the 3-side), repeating in alternation.



Figure 4.1. Clave rhythm stream
(Click on the diagram for a larger version)

To help you resolve and understand the two parts of the rhythm stream more clearly, we're going to enlist your Latin Basic for help.

Play the track: tumbao_with_clave_154bpm.mp3 (4.2 Mb)

Paying attention to the conga pattern only, begin dancing the Latin basic.

Once you're comfortably into the flow of things, start listening to the clave.

You'll discover that on one half of the basic the clave will sound twice, and on the other half the clave will sound thrice. You'll find yourself doing one of two things:-

Thing 1: stepping forward on the 3-side and back on the 2-side; or
Thing 2: stepping forward on the 2-side and back on the 3-side.


The Clave Phrase
A full clave phrase comprises five beats: one dose of 2-side and one dose of 3-side. It can start with the 3-side followed by the 2-side (called 3-2 clave); or it can start with the 2-side followed by the 3-side (called 2-3 clave).

So if you found yourself doing Thing 1 above, you would've been dancing in 3-2 clave; if you found yourself doing Thing 2, then you would've been dancing in 2-3 clave.

As you can gather, a single clave phrase spans two bars (or measures) of music and salsa's basic steps and dance patterns reflect this. Whether you dance in 3-2 or 2-3 depends solely on where you decide to enter the clave stream: on the 3-side or the 2-side respectively. (See below)



Figure 4.2. Entering the clave rhythm stream on 2-side or 3-side
(Click on the diagram for a larger version)

Orientation in the stream
As you can see and hear, the clave phrase takes one of two possible orientations or "directions":

  • 3-2 orientation / direction, sometimes called the forward direction
  • 2-3 orientation / direction, sometimes called the reverse direction

The terms "forward", "reverse" and "direction" are commonly used when describing clave, but it is important for you to be aware that these words are neutral i.e. they have no positive or negative connotations attached to them - the forward direction is no more "correct" or "better" than the reverse direction.

For that reason, I prefer to use the word "orientation".

Traditional percussionists would start by teaching clave in the 3-2 orientation, but I encounter more success introducing the 2-3 clave first. Also, the 2-3 orientation predominates in salsa as of this writing. The take-home message is that you should be fluent in both orientations of the clave phrase.

Now let's proceed to get the feel of clave orientation deeper ingrained.

Salsa Practices

Exercise 4.1
Practice your Latin basic to tumbao_with_clave_165bpm.mp3 (4.2 Mb)

Determine which orientation you're in relative to the forward step
e.g. if you're stepping forward on the 2-side, then you're in 2-3 clave.

Notice that you're always stepping forward on the same side throughout the track. This feature of clave functions as a rhythmic compass, helping dancers back into partnership dancing after performing solos or "shines". (See Extras.)

Also notice that the 2-side and the 3-side each have distinct feels.
(The next tutorial in the series will provide an explanation for this.)

Exercise 4.1.1
Still with the Latin basic and the same track, practice entering the clave stream on different sides.

Aim to be ambidextrous - able to enter the clave stream and dance in either orientation at will.

Ask yourself, "Does the Latin basic feel different in the different orientations?"

Exercise 4.1.2
Repeat the two exercises above, substituting all the remaining basics.

Get a feel for each side of the clave e.g. how does the turn in the Single Right Turn feel on the 3-side as compared to the 2-side? That will help you with the next stage, which is to increase your feel for the effect of clave orientation on the entire basic.

Exercise 4.1.3
Practice all the exercises above to different speeds.

As a general rule, the clave feel tends to be less pronounced at the extremes of the tempo range; dissipating at lower tempi and compressing at the higher tempi.

You could get a better understanding of this phenomenon using the salsa walk instead of the basics.

Exercise 4.1.4
Change your orientation mid-way through the track.

You can do so by: holding still for one bar of music, or dancing an even number of steps in one bar e.g. stepping on pulse (2 steps), or stepping on every beat (4 steps).

This practice is especially useful in reducing your reaction time to orientation changes in the music, particularly live music. It also provides valuable insight into how salsa musicians reorientate in the clave stream.

Polyrhythmic dancers
The best dancers are polyrhythmic by nature, commanding a minimum of three rhythm streams in mind and body, for example: the standard foot pattern, pulse in the torso, and mentally phrasing to clave. The ability to maintain several rhythm streams, allowing them to interact without distorting each other is called rhythmic independence.

Why would you want that?
Polyrhythmic dancing and independence are key to timing accuracy and rhythmic phrasing, (see next tutorial). It helps you become more receptive to new music, more responsive to live music, and to express your interpretation of music freely.

The next exercise begins your development as a polyrhythmic dancer, blurring the distinction between dancer and drummer in the finest Afro-Cuban tradition.

Exercise 4.2
Play the track: tumbao_with_clave_154bpm.mp3 (4.2 Mb)
(or a slower if necessary.)

Perform the Cucaracha basic to the conga tumbao, ignoring the clave for the moment.

Once in the flow of things, start listening for the clave and determine your orientation.

Keeping your legs moving to the cucaracha, start clapping the clave. Apart from developing rhythmic independence, this is a good test for how well you've naturalised the basic. If your basics are rock solid, you'd just need to concentrate on the clave rhythm and leave your feet to get on with their thing.

If your clave timing is spot on, the sound made by the clapping of your hands will mask perfectly the sound of the clave on the track.

Practice this exercise using all the salsa basics until you can maintain clave even whilst switching basics including salsa walks.

Stroke Accuracy and Alignment
Below is a figure of how the son clave rhythm aligns relative to the tumbao moderno and your own dance rhythm.



Figure 4.3. Son 2-3 clave relative to tumbao moderno and step rhythm

On the 2-side:

  • the first beat coincides with the conga slap stroke and your second step;
  • the second beat coincides with your third step.

On the 3-side:

  • the first beat coincides with your first step;
  • the third beat, called the ponche, coincides with the first conga open tone;
  • the second beat, called the bombó, falls in between your second and third steps, and is exactly in the middle of the first and third stokes.

The bombó is probably the most important beat in the clave phrase (for reasons that will become clear soon). It's also quite challenging to align correctly, however if you've been playing the clave 3-side with three even strokes, your bombó should be very much in place. If you have doubts or would like an exercise to ensure the stability of your bombó, there's one waiting for you in Extras.

Exercise 4.4
This one's called "Bring your own clave", and I think you can already guess what's coming next.

Using any "tumbao moderno without clave" track that you're comfortable with, dance the salsa walk and play clave. This is a great test of your command of clave and rhythmic independence.

Variations of this exercise to develop your independence and feel for clave simultaneously are:

  • play just the 2-side;
  • play just the 3-side;
  • play four of the five strokes (your choice which four);
  • play three of the five strokes (your choice again, and so on);
  • play the whole rhythm accenting the bombó;
  • play the whole rhythm accenting the ponche;
  • play the whole rhythm, accenting one or more strokes of your choice e.g. bombó and ponche.

Exercise 4.5
This is what you've been working toward.

Identify tracks in your collection where clave is played. Most of them will be son clave, so pick those.

Clap to it. Dance while playing it. Absorb it until you can feel the push and pull of the clave stream sweeping you along the course of the song.

Enjoy it, and we'll talk more about the ebb and flow of clave in the next tutorial.

Core Conclusions

  • Clave is a continuous flowing rhythm stream of two rhythmic units in alternation.
  • The rhythmic units or "cells" are called 2-side and 3-side.
  • A clave phrase contains one dose of 2-side and one dose of 3-side. A clave phrase is thus two bars long.
  • The clave phrase comes in two flavours or "orientations": 2-3 clave and 3-2 clave.
  • The salsa basic steps are two bars long, and are the physical manifestation of the clave phrase.
  • The salsa walk is of indeterminate length and is the physical manifestation of the clave rhythm stream.

1999 Salsa & Merengue Society