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How To: In Clave or Not?

April 3, 2017

Ask any Brazilian musician, and they will likely tell you that there is no clave in their music. So why is it that the structures and patterns in both folk and popular music styles sound so similar in Brazil and Cuba? It’s fairly straightforward when you analyze their shared ancestry; both countries were colonized by Iberian “neighbors,” and their African lineage consists of two primary nations: the Yoruba (referred to as nagô in Brazil and lucumí in Cuba), and the Congolese (referred to as bantú). Far more enslaved Africans were taken to Brazil than to the island of Cuba—nearly five times more by some estimates—but when tracing the sub-Saharan rhythms and influences throughout the Caribbean and South America, we find an extraordinary preservation of virtually identical African patterns in Brazilian and Cuban music.

So, how does this translate to contemporary piano technique? Through the prominent use of binary structures.

The antecedent-consequent phrases often heard in Afro-Caribbean and South American music tend to emphasize their shared African concept of “timeline” or guide pattern, one that typically consists of a 2-measure phrase that outlines tension and release by going from the 3-side to the 2-side (Ex. 1a), or release followed by tension by starting with the 2-side and moving to the 3-side (Ex. 1b). This is precisely what defines the Cuban son clave.

Present in both Brazilian and Cuban folk music is a 6/8 timeline, heard throughout many West African cultures, that embodies the role of the cowbell as a principal guide (see Ex. 2). This pattern is often referred to as 6/8 clave in Afro-Cuban or Salsa/Latin jazz circles, although it is not usually played on claves. It has maintained its role in the religious practices of Candomblé in Brazil and Regla de Ocha (or Santería) in Cuba, centuries after colonization. The first half of the phrase is considered the tension side, followed by its release.

Moving into the realm of popular dance music, and to structures mainly in duple meter, we see historical evidence in both cultures that derives the pianistic role from that of the guitar or its relatives, such as the Cuban tres and the Brazilian cavaquinho. Early Cuban son music and Brazilian samba and choro music were primarily played on string instruments and percussion; we don’t really see the piano coming into the fold, as far as dance music is concerned, until around the 1930s. As the piano’s role becomes further defined, we see it literally take over the guitar’s duties, particularly in Cuban dance music. (More contemporary Brazilian styles will often find the guitar and piano coexisting quite nicely.)

A factor that distinguishes the approach to playing Brazilian and Cuban styles is the perceived rigidity of the piano in Cuban music, vs. the freer comping style in Brazilian music. And while Brazilians might say they do not abide by the concept of clave, there is an accented part at the core of many percussion patterns that can be justified as a form of clave (Ex. 3a and 3b). Notice that this pattern is remarkably similar to the Cuban son clave pattern, with the fifth note delayed by an eighth-note rest. We often hear this pattern embedded within drum or percussion parts, and not played outright as with the Cuban clave. And by applying the Cuban aesthetic of clave to it, we would say it literally abides by the “3-2” vs. “2-3” analogy.


Without generalizing too much, and given that there are multiple ways to tackle this comparison, let’s analyze the inherent differences between a “samba-like” aesthetic in contrast with a “salsa-like” approach. For the sake of argument, we will suppose that you, the pianist on a “Latin” gig, have just been handed a chart that indicates the required feel or groove will alternate between Cuban and Brazilian styles. How might that go? Let’s take a crack at it, and see what looks and feels similar, and where the approach might differ.

The Brazilian samba pattern is one of several structures that are often played by the guitar as well as the piano (see Ex. 4). Given its binary structure, we need to assign a “clave direction” to it in order to have it properly line up with the percussion. The first two downbeats of the first measure line up best with the 2-side of the accent pattern in Ex. 3, and the syncopated second measure fits best with the 3-side, so we would call this example “2-3 direction.”

The Cuban montuno began as a tres (guitar) pattern, with a very distinct binary structure that does the exact same thing as the Brazilian pattern above. Here, the pattern places the downbeat on the 2-side, and the syncopated measure on the 3-side.

It’s more challenging, but so much funkier, playing in 3-2! Here is a samba in reverse: By emphasizing the “and” of beat 1 at the beginning of the phrase, you create a rich polyrhythm against the rest of the rhythm section. This pattern is a slight variation of the pattern in Ex. 4, with an additional syncopated hit on the “and” of beat 2 of the 3-side measure.

Using the same chord changes as above but at a slightly slower tempo, here is an example of the Cuban cha-cha-chá, which has become synonymous with the Tito Puente-penned classic, “Oye Como Va.” Over time it has become a commonly used comping pattern in both Cuban and Brazilian music. In Cuban music, however, it is only played in a 2-3 direction.

Example 8 shows a syncopated Brazilian comping pattern. It makes more sense to hear this pattern in relation to the bass, which in samba maintains a fairly consistent, heartbeat pattern (shown here).

A syncopated Cuban comping pattern is shown in Ex. 9. Finally, here is a similar approach to sustaining a constant syncopated groove, but more challenging given its superimposition on top of the Cuban tumbao (bass line). What’s more, this pattern is “clave neutral,” as it does not emphasize any particular side of the clave.

Need ideas and inspiration? Listen to these extraordinary pianists, all of whom are exemplars of the art of the groove in Brazilian and Cuban popular music: Antônio Carlos Jobim, Sérgio Mendes, Hermeto Pascoal, Tania Maria, Ivan Lins, Eliane Elias, Wagner Tirso, Egberto Gismonti, Jovino Santos Neto, Marcos Silva, Bebo Valdés, Luis Martínez Griñán “Lilí,” Pedro Justiz “Peruchín,” Frank Emilio Flynn, Chucho Valdés, César Pupy Pedroso, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Manolito Simonet, Iván Melón Lewis, Alfredo Rodríguez, and Ariacne Trujillo Durand.

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