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v The Clave: Creole Cuban Instrument, by Rebeca Mauleón

What is the clave? Both as instrument and as rhythmic pattern, the Cuban clave is perhaps one of the most significant developments to impact the music of the Western hemisphere. This term originated in Cuba, and applies to (among other things) "a musical instrument derived from diverse versions of rhythm sticks [found throughout the musical world]." Thus begins Fernando Ortiz's in-depth look at the evolution of one of the world's simplest instruments, the clave. (The plural form "claves" is also commonly used to refer to the instrument.) Ortiz, Cuba's foremost authority on ethnographic and anthropological studies, was perhaps the only scholar to catalog the island's hundreds of musicological innovations and instruments, the clave among them. The result was a five-volume compilation, published over a period of three years (1952-55), which remains unparalleled in the world of Afro-Caribbean musicology.

However, there has never been a comprehensive musicological study of the clave's diverse and multi-faceted parameters, particularly within the last several decades, which have seen numerous developments since Ortiz's research was published. Perhaps the most significant factors impacting the clave's evolution are linked to geographic and political events within recent years&endashthe most obvious being the Cuban Revolution, which undoubtedly shaped the musical events of several hemispheres. The influence of Cuban music throughout the world may be witnessed on a variety levels, particularly its most fundamental yet most complex level: its rhythm. The Cuban clave has evolved on a multitude of levels, bringing with it a full range of musicological and even sociological questions which often create more confusion than necessary. It is the author's wish that this endeavor will help to "demystify" the clave's role, both within the structural components of Afro-Cuban music as well as its impact on other world musics. It is important to this study, therefore, to place the developments of Cuban rhythmic structures&endashthe clave, in particular&endashwithin a chronological as well as a global context as we approach the twenty-first century.

But before launching into this study of the clave, it is important to recognize several factors pertaining to Cuba's historical, cultural and musical development, which will shed some light as to the clave's place in the music world. Perhaps the most accurate and concise view is summarized in John Storm Roberts' seminal work, The Latin Tinge:

Taken as a whole, Cuban music presents a more equal balance of African and Spanish ingredients than that of any other Latin country except Brazilian. Spanish folklore enriched the music of the countryside, of the city, and of the salon. At the same time&endashaided by an illicit slave trade that continued right through the 19th century&endashthe pure African strain remained stronger in Cuba than anywhere else. . . As a result, western African melody and drumming&endashand even the Yoruba [and other African] language&endashwere brought cheek by jowl with country music based on Spanish ten-line décima verses and southern Spanish [flamenco] melody. The co-existence of European and African rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic procedures led, of course, to their blending, and that blending took place at the most profound level.

Around the turn of the twentieth century in Cuba, the clave was described by certain musicologists as "a musical instrument consisting of two round sticks made of hard, polished, resonant wood, played by striking one against the other, and used to maintain the beat and accompany the guitar in popular song interpretation in particular, although they are often heard in orchestras."

Ortiz notes that this definition is incomplete, and sets out to explore the origins and development of the clave's presence in Cuban music. While similar idiophones exist in various cultures (Ortiz notes the traditions of Spain, China, Japan, Africa, Indochina, Siam, Mexico, and the Polynesian Islands), he affirms that the clave is an instrument native to Cuba, and that its creators were Creoles (a mixture of black and white cultures), but not aboriginal. All historical and ethnographic references point to the complete annihilation of aboriginal culture on the island, with the exception of a few terms and vague historical accounts, written, of course, by white colonists. What is clear is that Cuba's vast wealth of artistic expression&endashmusic and dance in particular&endashis the result of the "creolization" of African and European (mostly Spanish) cultures throughout the last five centuries.

The word "clave" is obviously Spanish, and is derived from the small wooden dowels used in various types of construction, also called "clavijas." "Clave" also means "clef" and "key," both in the literal musical sense of the word, as well as that which is relevant, important or perhaps indispensable. Many musicians and musicologists will certainly attest to the clave's importance on a multitude of levels, and one often finds that new-comers to the world of Afro-Cuban music become obsessed with the clave and its role within the musical structures, something I will address later in this study.

Origins of the Clave

Alejo Carpentier cites that claves were commonly in use by the seventeenth century in Havana, and Ortiz notes that the origins of the clave as instrument reflect a people's necessity for musical expression from within the horrors of slavery and prison life early on in Cuba's history, where often the only hope or joy rested in song and dance:


The clave in Cuban music was born in Havana, of the marriage between the rhythm sticks used by African slaves and the tejoletas (stone pestles) used by white Andalucian indentured servants. A mulatto birth was created from within the prison cells [and labor camps], where [for a moment] blacks and whites forgot about their hard work, their pain and suffering, even without musical instruments&endashno drums, no guitars - far away from their miserable lives in servitude.

In the various studies concerning African music and instruments, there appears to be no instrument which resembles the claves, nor is there any immediate "ancestor." Ortiz affirms that it was the Cuban Creole (or mulatto), who combined the elements of Spanish-derived peasant music and African-derived drumming, resulting in a "transculturation,"7 and the development of the clave instrument in the new Creole musical forms.8

Perhaps the most prominent role of the clave in its early stages of development (in Cuba's popular music) is featured in the music of the white peasant culture, referred to as guajiros (who are descendants of Spanish farmers), in the genre known as música campesina (peasant music), a direct descendant of Spanish peasant music. Here, in yet another musical culture born from the lower classes of society, there are no African-derived drums or polyrhythms, only the presence of the clave as a reminder of the humble and often painful origins of another sector of the Cuban population. Following these beginnings, the clave went on to "penetrate popular music throughout Cuba, by way of a 'mulattoization' and total transculturation."9

The term claves also refers to particular choral ensembles developed in nineteenth century Cuba (in Havana, specifically), which performed various styles of ambulatory street music (for carnival and other popular festivals) in which the clave instrument was also used. From this genre there developed a style known as clave, interpreted by folkloric ensembles also called coros de clave.

The Physical and the Spiritual

The claves do not have specific pitches, as Ortiz points out, and the resulting sound may vary while the instrument is being played.10 Anyone who has tried to play a pair of claves for the first time knows that the "correct" sound takes some time and practice to produce, and that&endashlike riding a bicycle&endashis never forgotten, once learned. What appears to be an elementary instrument at first may provide more work than bargained for, but once the true sound is achieved, the results are remarkable:


Aside from its rhythmic importance in musical practice, the Cuban clave istself, by virtue of its simplicity and striking timbre, a melodic exclamation filled with emotion. . . There is something about [the clave] which eludes the typically opaque sound of wood. Although made of vegetable, its vibrations create an almost christalline or metallic resonance.11

It is important to note here that the traditional style claves are usually quite high-pitched, and that recent innovations in clave-making have brought forth more variety, including hollow-sounding, lower-pitched claves, which are more commonly used in Salsa ensembles as well as in folkloric groups.

Ortiz also ventures into the spiritual nature of this Cuban instrument. Those claves made from the medullar portions of the hardest native wood are, he says, made "de corazón" (from the heart). This wood is "the spinal column of the tree, [and] the clave is nothing if not a bone from that tree, as the bark is its dried skin. This is why playing the clave&endashthe little sticks extracted from the innermost part of the plant&endashis like magically reviving the tree spirit."12

This mystical view could certainly be applied to many of the sacred as wellas secular instruments which were re-invented or newly-created by enslaved nations throughout the Americas. Many descendants of African slaves who struggled to preserve the traditions of their ancestors set out to replenish the spiritual void in their lives, and were able to assimilate and adapt to their new surroundings with remarkable ingenuity, creating a new family of Afro-Antillian instruments and musical styles even more complex than those of their predecessors.

"The Clave: Creole Cuban Instrument," excerpted from Masters Thesis by Rebeca Mauleón entitled "The Cuban Clave: Its Origins and Development in World Musics," © 1997 by Rebeca Mauleón-Santana. (Un-published).

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Last modified on: Saturday, October 9, 1999.