clave salsa

How to Hear the Clave Salsa

clave salsa
Wooden claves isolated on a white background.

Recognising the clave in salsa is one of the most challenging tasks for dancers. Yet very few videos or posts explain how to recognise it. 

Of course, there are some great videos that teach the theory of the clave, and they are very useful. Yet, most of them do not explain how, as a dancer you put the theory into practice. Some posts, go even as far as stating to “stop looking for the clave, it is not there” when in effect the clave “is always there, even when it is not”.
What no one tells you is why you struggle and what are the remedies against your struggles.
In order to change that I will provide you with a complete step-by-step guide into how to master the clave salsa.

1. What you have seen in your salsa classes

Chances are, your instructor played a slow-paced salsa song to you that went like this “123-567”. Of course, when you listen to this instructional audio, it’s easy to hear the clave patterns, since someone tells you where they are. However, when you listen to real salsa music, you find yourself against a brick wall and find it difficult to point where the clave is. 
And the reason why your instructor does not expand so much on the clave and its pattern is because he or she probably doesn’t know how to recognise it in the first place. There are more rubbish salsa teachers than you might imagine. I even once met a lady who held a diploma as a certified salsa instructor, but when I danced with her, she could not recognise her left foot from her right one.

1.1. How to spot fake teachers

If you want to know how good your salsa instructor is, choose any random song and ask them to dance on it. That might sound disrespectful, but would you go to a dojo and learn martial art from a bullshido artist? Or, observe how they move by themselves without the help of a partner. iI they can’t dance solo, they can’t dance period.

1.2. The truth you don’t want to hear

The reality is that, you as a student are probably partially responsible for not having developed a good understanding of the clave in salsa. Indeed, many students want to rush to turns, styling and show-off rather than spend time learning to listen to the clave properly. This is a terrible mistake, especially when you consider that 95% of salsa does not involve a single salsa steps (discover the 95% that matter).

2. How do I recognise the clave salsa?

In order to identify where the clave is in a salsa song you must have a method. Just like for driving a car, you don’t go from novice to expert in one go. Therefore, I have devised a 5-level musical hearing program that takes you from complete beginner all the way to full independence in an organised and structured way. And the best way to recognise the clave salsa is…to listen to Cuban rumba first and foremost. Indeed, Cuban rumba is one of the music styles that uses the clave as its main instruments.

2.1. Why rumba clave is good for clave salsa?

One of the key reasons why many people cannot hear the clave in a salsa song, is because the instrument is just one out of many encumbering ones. Therefore, it’s easy to get distracted. What you want is a music type that is close enough to salsa, uses the clave all the time and does not get too many interferences from other instruments. And that’s where rumba comes to play. Why do you think world class Cuban salsa dancers are also great with rumba dance, chango etc..? It’s because the whole system is engrained into their training. Therefore, our first level will be about hearing the clave in Cuban rumba.

2.2. Rumba clave 3/2 and 2/3

There are 2 main types of patterns in a typical rumba song regarding the clave. The 3/2 and the 2/3. These represent the number of times you will hear the clave on a typical basic step. Such step is made of two measures of 4 beats each. Therefore, on a total of 8 beats you will hear the clave 5 times.

🎶2/3
You hear the clave twice on the first measure and three time on the second one.

🎶3/2
On this one you hear the clave three times on the first measure and two times on the second one.

Clave rumba patterns to train for salsa clave
Clave rumba patterns to train for salsa clave

The pattern 3/2 is the most commonly used one. Therefore, we will focus our attention on it. But the principle would be exactly the same for 2/3 songs.

🔴 Level 1 video: Understand the rhythm and patterns of the clave in rumba

This video teaches you how to identify the clave in a typical Cuban rumba song. To avoid any accusation of “picking up my songs” (which is what most of the phony salsa teachers do), I selected the first video that came-up when I typed “Cuban rumba dance” on YouTube. You can type the same keywords and that video will come-up. Then I broke it down the way I heard it, playing along with the musician, and showing some steps as well. It’s therefore a great first level guide to use over and over. If you are still tempted to brush this one aside because it is not salsa, I can tell only one thing YOU WILL FAIL AND WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND THE CLAVE SALSA.

I advise people who are serious about their training to spend at least 6 weeks listening exclusively to rumba songs. You choose any random Cuban rumba song then you play along. Use two sticks and start playing. Then add-up very few simple left/right steps or forward backward. The point here is not to dance salsa, but to get the rhythm. The secret of my training is that I use rumba, chango etc as music when I work on my body movement. That way I am training my ears passively while actively training my body. Do that and you will see the difference it makes to your salsa game in the long run.
So, two questions might come-up from this first session:
What if I dance LA or NY style?
Why should I spend so much time on this hearing?

■ What if I dance LA or NY style?

The principle does not change at all. Once you have developed great hearing for the music and you can move your body, you can accommodate to the style you want. Moreover (and that’s why I say salsa has nothing to do with salsa steps), what you are doing is finding the patterns. Once you can clearly identify them, you can “write” whatever code you want (on 1, on 2, on 10,000 or 10 billion if you want).

■ Why should I spend so much time on this hearing?

I could give you tones of examples of people who learned salsa steps and, who after 10, 15, 20 years still cannot dance salsa on beat. I know such examples because when I started, I thought these people knew how to dance salsa, even if I was not so impressed with their body movement. Then I researched the topic and realised guys like Maykel Fonts, Yoannis Tamayo, practice rumba and other afro-Cuban dances a lot, even more than salsa. So, I wondered why. The more I investigated the more I realised that actually these Afro-Cuban dances trained your ears and body at the same time. Secondly, I realised that once you can do these dances, salsa is actually very easy. 

🔴 Level 2 video: Rumba with Drums

The second level of our clave salsa musical hearing program still focuses on rumba. But this time we add the drum. The speed changes to be a little faster than the previous level. And the objective is for you to recognise the clave on different musical variation, since the tempo of a song is generally one of the reason why students quickly lose the beat.
You might be tempted to think this is a waste of time. But if I am giving you the secret now its because this is the fastest way for you to develop good hearing for the clave salsa.

🔴 Level 3 video: Rumba with more instruments

This third level should not really be called rumba but the evolution of rumba. If you listen to a song such as Gilles Peterson presents Havana Cultura: New Cuba Sound , you can see how the song departs from the street rumba of the first level, to be more studio based. By now, you probably understand what I am doing. Taking you from songs with only the clave to slowly move into songs with more instruments. In this level, the clave is still present and perceptible, and the rhythm is generally loopy (same type of rhythm over and over). You should be able to integrate simple salsa steps (such as the ones in the video below) into these kinds of songs. However, your key objective is to listen and find the pattern of the clave. Therefore, the steps should be simple like side steps etc. If you keep repeating them constantly, eventually your brain will get used to finding the clave in a song.

🔴 Level 4: clave disappearing

Here, we listen to salsa music. Ideally, we choose a slower pace salsa without too many changes in rhythm. In the example I provide, you can hear the clave at the beginning, but as instruments kick in it becomes harder to spot where it is. One thing to remember is that the clave itself is pretty simple and repetitive. It’s a bit like a factory worker whose only task is to punch holes in a steel material. It does not matter, what other people in the factory do, or the level of noise around you, your only job is to punch holes. Similarly, with the clave you do not let yourself be distracted by other instruments but only play the clave over and over. Once you are proficient in doing this, only then can you veer to other instruments. 

🔴 Level 5: No clave

By now you should be comfortable putting clave salsa into anything. Still some songs don’t seem to have it, or it quickly fades away. What should you do in those cases? If you spent the time on the previous levels, especially the 1 to 3, you will be able to develop a “feel” for the clave. By now your ears are well trained and believe it or not they can perceive the rhythm of a song. Of course, if you went straight to the level 5 and disregarded the previous ones, you will struggle. 

3. Discover new, untapped materials

Be the first to check-out all the exciting info I put out on Salsa, Zumba, Bachata and other afro-Cuban dances. I have many thrilling programs that will transform and challenge you. These life-changing and great VIP programs can take you from novice to master in less than 3 months. They are badass and will definitely introduce new muscles to your body.


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