The beauty of the Clave
Books, articles and web pages have been written about the clave. About its history and its role in Cuban music. Debates arise on whether salsa should be danced on 1 or on 2, on whether the man should break on 1(2) or 5(6). Supporters of all side use the clave to justify their view. If often borders on philosophy and mysticism.
As a dancer, I think is all depends on the song and its cadenza. As a teacher, I used to try to make my students listen to it and (then!) feel it. As a musician, I appreciate its importance without falling into dogmas. As a mathematician.... I discovered a curious inner beauty in it.. an amazing symmetry that makes you wonder whether it happened by chance.. a stunning simplicity that makes all the above debates look irrelevant By writing it down, I also take the opportunity to emphases the incredibly strong link (known to all mathematicians, but surprising to few others) between maths & music, maths & dance and, if you allow me, maths & beauty.
Here it is, in simple words...
This figure (taken from my CD) shows the location of the clave beats, marked as black dots (the clave is played as 2-3). If you do not know what I am talking about, you should refer to the booklet contained in my CD). The basic salsa steps are also shown (dancing on '1').
Notice a few things:
- if you play the clave backwards what do you get? The clave! The 2-3 clave becomes 3-2 and viceversa. You can see this by imagining to run the clock in the figure counterclockwise. If you still do not believe it, just record it and play it backward. Notice that this is possible because of the lack of accents in the clave pattern.
- let's suppose we dance one 1 (1,2,3 pause 5,6,7 pause). How many clave notes do we mark (step on)? "3". How many do we miss? "2". What if we dance on 2? The same. and on 3? The same. and on 4? The same. You can see this by imagining to rotate the dancers' position in the figure, whilst keeping the clock still. This, to me, is the strongest demonstration that dancing 'on 1' or 'on 2' is a purely subjective choice which depends on the specific song and it not hardwired into the clave pattern.
- finally, what happens is the 2-3 clave and the 3-2 clave are played together (at a slow tempo)? Cha Cha Cha, Cha Cha Cha....