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Eddie Palmieri on the Clave

By Mark Towns
Published: November 6 2001, JazzHouston

The Spanish-English dictionary defines the word 'clave' as 'the key to a code, puzzle, etc.' In Latin music, it is the key that unlocks the secret to the myriad of rhythms generically referred to as 'salsa.' An underlying pattern that connects the complicated polyrhythmic patterns played by the traditional Latin rhythm section of conga, timbales, bongo, bass, and piano, the clave is sometimes actually played and sometimes only implied. If you cross the clave or turn it around, you have committed a cardinal Latin music sin. Just as a jazz player is judged on whether his phrases 'swing', a Latin player or soloist is judged on whether or not they play 'in clave'.

This seemingly innocuous 5 beat, 2-measure phrase has spawned hours of discussion and debate. Major artists have recorded and released songs, only later to embarrassingly discover that the clave was backward, didn't fit a certain break, didn't continue through a break, etc. Tito Puente claimed that Santana's version of Puente's 'Para Los Rumberos' was in the wrong clave, but somehow it worked. Similar accusations have been hurled at some recorded versions of the Cuban classic, 'Peanut Vendor.' Some major salsa bands are purported to have gone back in the studio after a recording has come out to fix clave problems for future releases of the same recording.

Debates over the clave will probably go on forever among Latin music aficionados. Here are some thoughts on it from one of the experts, Latin music icon, pianist Eddie Palmieri.

(By the way, it's pronounced CLAH-vay, and it doesn't rhyme with cave.)

MT: Tell me about your approach to the clave.

EP: Well, it all depends on the arrangement. You see the clave is just a rhythmical pattern that's complimentary to the first division in music, which is the 8th note. In clave, that's just to give you a certain meter, a two bar meter, a reference. It's a rhythmical pattern that goes wonderful when the accents fall where they do. Now, to have what they call 2-3 clave or 3-2 clave, that's only because of the bar, wherever it starts. For example, there's a two bar phrase, so if you have a pick-up (intro), for example, it's gonna land up there on the two clave because the first bar was eaten up on the three. And if it starts right on a whole note then you have a 3-2 clave and then it'll start there. It's very mysterious but when you analyze it, it becomes as simple as a toy, I would say.

MT: So when a song starts, the clave starts like it's a separate metronome?

EP: Again, it all depends if a melody starts like on the beat, on the first beat, not a pickup, if it's a pickup, usually it will be a 2-3 clave because it's a two bar phrase. So if the first bar has a pickup, there goes the first 3 clave shot. The next phrase would be 2-3, you follow? (That's) if it's a two bar phrase. It all depends where the intro comes in. And even myself, when I'm writing sometime, a bar eludes me or something like that, and even in one of my recordings I have overwritten on the clave. It's not noticeable, but then when I analyzed it, I said, 'Oh my goodness, look what I have done.' It went right by and that's how unique it is.

MT: In your opinion, can the clave stop in the middle of the song for a break and then start again without it being continuous from the beginning of the song to the end?

EP: Well, it all depends on the clave player. If he gets tired or has to go to the restroom!

MT: What happens to the clave when you have an odd numbered phrase in a composition, like a five-measure phrase, or a seven-measure phrase?

EP: You could do anything. I've done that in different odd numbers. They start in one clave and the composition is really in another, then you have to add another bar so you can equalize the clave that you're going into, only because you like that. That's something that has certainly been done by me.

MT: Tell me about the extra bar you put in 'Bilongo.' (Palmieri added an extra measure before the bridge in his classic arrangement of this Latin music classic.)

EP: [Laughs] Well, that was always done in Cuba without adding that extra bar. I added that extra bar in my recording in 1969. Since that time, we've always played it that way. But, the Cubans for one reason or other, it was always the charanga type form and in the charanga, it somehow goes right by you. You don't realize it. But when you break it down it needed that extra bar and I certainly put it in.

MT: Did you notice it right away?

EP: Oh, yeah, when I first heard it years ago. But in the form of charanga it doesn't bother. If you hear it by (the original Cuban groups), whoever did it never changed it for whatever reason and I just added that extra bar. Great awareness on that, sir.

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