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Salsa: Ear Training

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Son Clave & the Clave Rhythm Stream: Extras

Navigating Salsa: Clave as Rhythmic Compass
Previously, I had mentioned that clave "functions as a rhythmic compass, helping dancers back into partnership dancing after performing solos". One of clave's properties is a mechanism that allows percussionists, and that includes dancers, a means to locate and orientate themselves rapidly in the clave rhythm stream. To understand how, let's look at a graphical representation of one phrase of son clave rhythm, tumbao moderno, and dance rhythm.

If we were to take the 3-side and overlay it on the 2-side:




Figure 4.4. Putting 3-side over 2-side

We would get:


Figure 4.5. 3-side over 2-side (son clave)

Notice that none of the beats in the clave line match up; so we can say that the two sides of the phrase are not super-imposable. Therefore hearing just one clave beat in any given bar of music will tell you which side you're in. For example if you heard:



you would know you were on the 2-side; or,



you would recognise yourself as being on the 3-side.

Having an innate feel for clave allows you, the dancer, to navigate through particularly tricky passages of music, or come back into synchrony with a partner after soloing. Once you've learned salsa's dance pattern to the tumbao moderno, aligning 4 of clave's 5 beats is fairly straight-forward. The remaining beat, the bombó, deserves a little more attention.

Bombó Stability
The bombó plays a crucial role in making salsa's rhythms as captivating as they are. It's located on the upbeat in between the second and third steps.
If you're used to counting time, it's between beats 2 and 3 (the and of beat 2, written as 2+); or between beats 6 and 7 (written as 6+), depending on clave orientation. If you're not, this will become clear in the exercise afterwards.



Figure 4.8. Rhythmic location of the bombó

To the newly initiated, the position of the bombó on the upbeat is perceived as a point of rhythmic instability; and the general tendency when playing it, is to let it drift until it's late.



Figure 4.9. Drift of bombó to later in the 3-side cell

And it usually ends up coinciding with the third step...



Figure 4.10. Too late.., it's not a bombó anymore

The pattern is now super-imposable and the clave-literate will recognise the beat as belonging to the 2-side; generating no small amount of confusion and possibly an embarrasing tangle of legs. Bombó stability is the first mark of clave competence and can be achieved in two ways.

  • Acquisition mode - dance and play to the "tumbao with clave tracks" paying particular attention to the bombó, until the sound of your clave masks perfectly that of the track;
  • Learning mode - playing clave with the aid of a count (see below).

Learning to Play Clave
This is a hands-only practice and can be played on any flat-ish surface like a table top - my favourite is to use my thighs, as I take them everywhere. This exercise is written for dextral people, so if you're sinistral then just swap the "L"s and "R"s around.


  1. The top line is the count, which you should vocalise as:
    "one, and, two, and, three, and, four, and, five, and, six, and, se'n, and, eight, and,.."
    (Note: the word "seven" is contracted to the monosyllabic "se'n")
  2. The middle line is the clave pattern in 2-3 and has two symbols:
    the dot means play lightly with your fingertips;
    the asterisk means play firmly with your palm
  3. The bottom line indicates which hand you should be using:
    L is for left, R is for right.

Things you should know
The fingertip strokes are called "ghost" strokes and act as placeholders so that your palm strokes are appropriately spaced apart. Without them, your clave strokes would tend to creep up to one another. The ghost strokes should be played more and more lightly as you become more proficient, until you don't need them anymore.

Your dominant hand plays the upbeats to draw your attention to them, and plays the bombó in particular. It gives the exercise a smooth balanced feel. Once you've done this a few times, try playing it sinistral as well. We'll be using variations of this practice again in future tutorials, so it would help to be ambidexterous. Remember to train yourself in the 3-2 orientation too.

This approach is less musical than the acquisition mode because you tend to expend more effort counting than listening to what you're playing. At least at first. Use the count as an aid, not a crutch. Develop your ear for the rhythm and move away from counting as soon as you are confidently able.

Seamless Dancing
…is the hallmark of the native dancer, and being mistaken for one is an outcome that many learned dancers aspire to. Learning from the ground up as we are, we have come to understand that a dance basic equates to one clave phrase. Putting clave phrases together end-to-end gives us the clave rhythm stream, right?


With this cellular approach, the mind still perceives an end and a beginning to a phrase, resulting in a mental hiccup or seam. A clave phrase is a single snapshot of the clave rhythm stream, and stringing all the snapshots together gives us a sense of movement but not of flow. You could try to overcome the hiccup by perceiving the seam as being in the middle of the clave phrase of the other orientation (see Figure 5) - and it works to a limited extent, although the mental overheads are high.

The elegant answer lies in placing the importance of the clave rhythm stream and its natural embodiment the salsa walk, above that of the clave phrase and the salsa basics. Thus, interpreting the clave phrase as simply a moment in the rhythm stream calls for a parallel reinterpretation of the salsa basics in terms of the walk.

For example:

The Latin basic can be reinterpreted as a forward-and-backward oscillation of the walk through a central point, somewhat like the swing of a pendulum. Likewise the Cucaracha can be thought of as a laterally oscillating walk. Retraining yourself to think in this way opens up interesting new opportunities; like the possibility of diagonal oscillations at 45 degrees or other angles.

The Single Right Turn can be reinterpreted into walking a full turn over three paces, and over four beats. No discrete angles (e.g. 90°/90°/180°; 0°/180°/180°) need be defined nor implied per step, as long as the turn is achieved. Neither does the turn need to be completed by the end of the third beat; your body can continue to turn during the conga open tones even after your third step has taken place.

The most significant advancement you can make into seamless dancing is to reinterpret mentally all your basics and combinations into the walk, and render your walk as continuous as the clave rhythm stream.

Having understood this, now is the time to return to the beginning of this tutorial and begin the process of reinterpretation.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society