Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Clave in Salsa

In salsa, the instruments nearly always tie into the clave pattern, including the bass and the piano. The clave is fundamental to the music and the dance. Clave in English means "key", which makes good sense... it is the key to the music/beat.

Direction of the Clave

The direction of the clave (2/3 vs 3/2) is generally selected early during the construction of a new salsa song. Typically, after the melody is formed, the best matching clave direction is selected, and then the remainder of the song is constructed from there.

Accordingly, salsa music is based around the clave, whether or not the clave is actually being played at that point in time or not.

Slower songs tend to have a 3/2 clave, while faster songs have a 2/3

Authentic Salsa versus Pop Songs

Don't be fooled by English pop songs with either just an 8-beat (4/4 time) (here is an example), a pop song with a hint of a clave timing (here is an example), or a song (typically latin pop) with a salsa bea
t (some or all percussion instruments) "mixed in" (here is an example)... they just don't cut it for salsa dancing as they haven't been constructed with the clave at the heart of the music (same goes for Cha Cha in my opinion!).

On the other hand, here is an English pop song that has been re-recorded for salsa (here is an example). This works, as the 2/3 clave is hit all the time by the other instruments, and the breaks work in time with the percussion too.

The Salsa (Son) Clave

Salsa songs typically use a Son clave. The notation below shows a 3/2 son clave. Note that even though the timing is 4/4 (salsa), the firs three beats of the clave hit as if the timing was really 3/4 (i.e. three evenly spaced beats). The second part of the clave is nicely timed with 4/4... i.e. they fall on beats 2 and 3, or beats 6 and 7 if you are counting as a salsa dancer. If you really want to know the timing for the first three beats, it is 1, 2 1/2, 4 :)

Listen to the son clave (3/2) here.

For a 2/3 clave, just swap the two bars above around. The timing will be 2,3, 5, 6 1/2, 8.

The Rumba Clave

Rumba and Salsa are different types of music but with plenty of similarities. They are both in 4/4 time, so Rumba is often mixed into salsa songs. Additionally, the Rumba clave (which is subtlety different from the Salsa clave, is sometimes used instead of the Salsa clave in Salsa songs.
However, when a Rumba section appears in a Salsa song, the Rumba clave will be used. As for a Rumba song, it will normally use a Rumba clave.

Here is a diagram of a 3/2 Rumba clave. Note the slight delay on the third beat. That makes it sound (in a way) like a 2/3 clave... and most people get confused by this (they mistake a 3/2 rumba clave for a 2/3 Son clave).

Listen to a rumba clave (2/3) here. (Listen for the delayed third beat, and how quickly the final two beats come up as a result).

Dancing to the Clave

The foot strikes the clave three times during a full basic. Regardless of 2/3 or 3/2, or if you are dancing on 1 or on 2.

For a detailed discussion, please see this post.

Clave and other Percussion Instruments

Since salsa is built around the clave, most of the instruments tie into it, whether or not the actual clave is being played at the time. The cowbell, for example, when being played in the mambo section of a song, can often tie in nicely with a 2/3 clave. Here is a post on that topic.


  1. Do you know the name and artist of the English song remixed as salsa?

  2. Yeah! Salsa must be danced according to the rhythm. Listen to the instrument and jiggle with it. I like the Ramba clave rhythm. It has a relaxing beat that makes me feel free.

  3. Very nice music. You might want to check out this salsa Album in this website