Against Clave: Why This Instrument May Not Be the Best One in Helping You Keep the Beat

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(Versión en español aquí.)

Some months ago, I wrote a quite extensive article explaining the differences between what people refer to as the “2:3 clave” and the “3:2 clave”. It really boiled down to this: there is really just one clave pattern, when you listen to it in a loop, the 3-side being the beginning; but most Cuban musicians nowadays choose to begin the musical phrase of the song on the 2-side, so that the 1 count of the dancer happens to be on the 2-side of the clave; therefore, if we were to dance to the clave where our 1 count is on the 3-side—that is, going with the normal clave pattern—we would be going against where the song is actually saying the 1 count is (in this case, the 2-side). If all of this is confusing to you, I strongly recommend that you read that piece first (click here) and then come back and read this one. If you feel that you understand the difference, then by all means keep reading.

Now, you might be wondering about the title. Indeed, clave is the instrument used by pretty much every Cuban dance instructor who incorporates musicality into their lessons. And they use the clave to essentially teach people how to keep a beat. That is, how to find where the 1-count (of the dancer) is in the clave pattern (depending on whether it is a 3:2 or 2:3 clave), so that they can keep a steady beat throughout the song, as the clave pattern itself remains equally steady.

So the instructor bangs the sticks together, and steps in time to the clave. The students follow.

Then the instructor plays a song (say it is “Me dicen Cuba” by Havana D’Primera) and…well, no one is playing the clave in the song. Students cannot hear the clave.

Essentially, students learned all this stuff about clave for nothing.

OK, OK. I take that back. It’s not really “for nothing.” Eventually, through more exposure to the music, some students will be able to distinguish where the clave is, even if it is not explicitly played in the song. But at the moment in which students are learning about clave, and then a song which does not have an explicit clave being played comes on as part of that lesson…well, it stands to reason that some students would be confused, even if they do not explicitly say so to their instructors.

In the instructor’s defense, there are not that many Cuban songs nowadays that have an explicit clave. (When I say “explicit” I mean you can hear it; inversely, “implicit” means you cannot. Whether it is one or the other, clave is always there, as it is the backbone of this type of music.) With this lack of explicit clave in most songs that we listen to nowadays, the question becomes, why, then, learn the clave in the first place—at least as a beginner being exposed to basic concepts such as “How to find and maintain a steady beat when you are dancing”?

Why, indeed? I personally find it rather unpractical—at least for those who are attempting to try and keep a beat.

So, if you are one of those people that still does not know how to keep a beat, you hit jackpot with this post. However, this post is also for those who want to know other ways in which one can keep a beat besides dancing on the 1—in this case, dancing on the 2 (what is known in Cuba as contratiempo). So, if you have been wanting to learn how to dance a contratiempo, this is the post for you. For what follows will be a series of videos which will show you how to do just that, not only by listening to the clave (if you’d rather use this instrument), but also by listening to another instrument which I consider to be essential for this task: the conga.

So let’s break down what dancing “on the 1” is. Remember, there are two different types of clave: 3-2 and 2-3, and the dancer’s 1-count changes according to which side musicians emphasize. For the purposes of these videos, I will be doing the leader’s step, which mean that the 1-count will always be at the beginning of my 3-step which starts with the left foot (which will be on the right side of your screen). Also, I will be doing the basic son (dance) step, in which the dancers sways to both sides as opposed to going in a forward-and-backward motion (salsa’s basic step, which is, too, another basic step of son, by the way).

So let’s get to it. This is what dancing on the 1, on a 3:2 clave, looks like. (A note: these are all my own personal videos. I am not a professional with the camera, so please excuse the quality, if you find it lacking.)

And this is what dancing on the 1, on a 2:3 clave, looks like:

(Again, if you are having trouble seeing the difference in these videos, please do read this piece I wrote on clave first.)

So, this is what most instructors teach you when they teach clave. But again, you get a song like the one below, and all of this “clave knowledge” goes pretty much nowhere for the time being. Indeed, in this video, for example, the clave comes and goes, making it rather difficult for those who are just being exposed to it to understand what is happening, much less find the 1-count.

What follows is what I will attempt to teach you with this post.

The first thing I want you to do is to try to forget the clave for a moment. We are going to talk about the conga. Why? Because, in the above song, that was the instrument that was explicit and consistent in the way that it played throughout most of the song. Therefore, it is the instrument which, lacking an explicit clave, is the one that you can turn to in order to find and keep a beat.

But first things first. Let’s learn the basic conga pattern—also referred to as marcha. In the following video, I want you to pay close attention to two things: the “slap” and the “open tone” (or what the instructor in this videos calls, for learning purposes, “open, open” or “tone, tone”). It is important that you learn to recognize the particular sounds of the “slap” and the “open tone.” (You can forward to 2:53 if you want to skip the explanations. I’d say watch until around 4:20)

While the marcha pattern that you hear may not be as straightforward in modern Cuban music as the video I have just shown you, I have found, by listening to a lot of songs, that you will hear some version of the slap and open tone (2nd and 4th count, respectively) in more songs than you won’t. The following video is a very good example of this.

So, it still works with a lot of songs, even if the marcha is different—and it definitely still works more than the clave, which in most songs nowadays is implicit.

If you now go back to the song above, “Chiquita”, and play it again, you’ll start hearing the “open tone” sound from the tutorial I just showed you. You’ll hear it consistently throughout the song now, a “tuck-tuck” every four counts. (The open tone is much more noticeable than the slap.)

So, if we established that, lacking explicit clave, the conga does provide an explicit sound which can help us keep a beat, then all we need to find out is in what beat the slap and open tone are occurring. The following video is of tremendous help in that regard.

So, according to this video, the slap happens on second beat, and the open tone on the fourth. As a dancer, you’d logically want to “hit” (step on) the beat that these sounds (slap and open tone) happen, because that is what we hear. So, if we were to transfer this concept to our footwork when we dance casino or salsa, you will find that your counting, instead of 1,2,3-5,6,7, now has become 2-3-4, 6-7-8. The following video shows how to do the basic step following the conga pattern. Notice how the beginning of my 3-count hits during the “slap” part, while the end of the 3-count happens during the “open tone.”

Because your first step is on the two count, you are now officially dancing on the 2. This is not anything new, actually. Eddie Torres, who allegedly began the On2 movement (and I say “allegedly” because people in Cuba were dancing on the 2 for a long time before Eddie Torres did), teaches to dance on the 2 following the exact same formula with the conga. Start watching at 1:47:

Torres is going in a forward-and-backward motion, instead of swaying to the sides, like you would in son or casino while in closed-position. Yet the beginning of his 3-count still hits during the “slap” part, and likewise the end of the 3-count happens during the “open tone.”

For those wondering what dancing on 2 following the clave pattern looks like, here is another one of my videos:

This, my readers, is what is known in Cuba as dancing a contratiempo. And contratiempo, in turn, is the preferred count for dancing son. This is of course not confined to son dancing, as I have made the case about dancing contratiempo in casino as well, in other related posts (click here).

The best proof as to why contratiempo and dancing on 2 are the exact same thing, besides you seeing how the count matches the footwork in the above video, is best represented when we overlap the conga’s marcha with the clave pattern. Let us take a look:

So, by dancing to the conga’s marcha, you can certainly keep a beat, and the cool thing about it is that you will be dancing on the 2—or the 6, depending on what side of the clave you start on. Personally, I do not care about being on the “right side” as long as I am keeping a steady beat.

And for steadiness on the beat, following the pattern of the congas does the trick just fine.

So let’s look at some videos to see how this all fits with actuals songs. In the following video, the 1-count is on the 2-side of the clave, which makes the song have a 2:3 clave. (If you do not know how to find the clave, on the one hand, trust me that this is a 2-3 clave, and on the other, well, you just made my point as to why we need to listen to other instruments to keep the beat when dancing.) What I want to point out about this video is that although it is a 2-3 clave, I am dancing where my 2 (the beginning of my 3-step) is on the 3-side. I do this because that is the most common way of dancing contratiempo—that is, we begin dancing on the 3-side, even if the clave is 2:3 and therefore the melody of the song begins on the 2-side.

To me, this makes little sense. If, when we are dancing on one, we can switch where we step the 1-count based on the type of clave of the song, then so should we be able to do the same thing when we are dancing on the two. At any rate, here is a video, dancing typical contratiempo (beginning on 3-side). Again, pay attention at how my 3-step ends on the open tone of the conga.

And here is a video that, to me, make a bit more sense: dancing contratiempo beginning on the 2-side, given that the song has a 2:3 clave.

At the end of the day, these distinctions will always be for those who care about those things. Like I said, for me, it is all about keeping a steady beat. As long as I am hitting the conga’s open tone at the end of my three step, no matter the side of the clave I am on, my beat remains steady:

Before finishing this blog post, I do have to make some disclaimers. The first one being that, though I have found dancing on the conga to be most helpful, you will run into problems every now and then when the conga’s marcha happens to be different, or the conga’s sound, at times, gets overpowered by the sound of the cowbell during the montuno. Or when the conga is not playing. Regardless of this, the chances of this happening are much, much smaller than a song not having an explicit clave.

Disclaimer two: the conga helps, but ultimately you should still learn to find the clave in a song (I already gave you a big hint on a previous post: most Cuban music today is played in 2:3 clave, so once you find the one, you’ll know that you are on the 2-side). Even if the clave is not explicit, it is always implicit for musicians when they are playing this type of music. Always. So what you ideally want is for the clave pattern to be playing in your head when you listen to this music. But that only happens when you listen to a lot of this music.

Disclaimer three: following the conga pattern works best during the largo/introduction than in the montuno, as the cowbell often overpowers the sound of the conga in the latter. In fact, the three videos with actual songs I dance to, I am dancing during the largo section. If you do not know what I am talking about when I say “largo/montuno”, click here.)  I personally solve this by switching my count to the 1 during the montuno, as that count is what the cowbell is emphasizing (there will be a blog post about this, too). Regardless, there is some version of the marcha playing even in the montuno. You just have to train your ear to hear it, and you can do that by listening to a lot of the largo sections, in which the sound of the conga is clearer.

For a beginner or anyone who is starting to learn how to keep a beat, the concept of clave is hard to grasp. On the other hand, I have found the conga to be the most helpful of all, mostly because you can actually hear it in most songs! Eddie Torre’s method became popular for a reason, folks.

As with the previous blog post that dealt with clave, this one about conga is one of those things that you may not get in just one read or one try. Keep coming back to this, keep re-reading, keep practicing.

I assure you: once you get a good grasp of this, the results will be pretty awesome.

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