Following the Clave In Salsa For Musicians and Dancers

My friend Grant Cuthbertson is teaching musicality classes for salsa dancers and has made some of his materials available. He recently posted an analysis on the clave and phrases of Que le Pongan Salsa by El Gran Combo. Check out his analysis and follow along with the recording.

The clave, which literally translates as “key,” is not just the percussion instrument many of you may already be familiar with. In latin music clave also refers to the 2 bar rhythmic pattern that is either played or implied by the percussion section. There are some variations of this pattern, but the two basic ones you’ll find are the 2-3 clave and the 3-2 clave.


The type of clave being played can have a subtle, but important, effect on the music and how dancers might want to respond. While it’s common for salsa tunes to keep the same clave all the way throughout the entire chart, many charts will change the clave back and fourth throughout. Que le Pongan Salsa does this in the typical manner, by adding extra measures in the phrases. Check out Grant’s analysis and look at the 9 measure phrases. The clave pattern starts off as a 2-3 clave in this chart, but “flips” to a 3-2 clave beginning at measure 35.

While the salsa players I usually play with call this “flipping” the clave, it’s important to understand that the clave pattern itself doesn’t change, but rather the phrasing alters where the clave patter falls. Measure 35 of Que le Pongan Salsa adds a 9th measure in the phrase, so when the next phrase starts at measure 36 the clave has flipped to a 3-2 pattern.

Two other noteworthy things in Grant’s analysis include how frequently different sections of the band or even the entire band will emphasize parts, or “sides,” of the clave pattern. Also note how often the phrasing is different from the typical 8 measure phrases we’re used to. There are 9 measure and 13 measure phrases used to flip the clave, but there are also some 10 measure and 12 measure phrases as well. Both these features are quite common in salsa music and is one of the characteristics that I find so interesting about it.

Thanks to Grant for making his analysis available.

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