Years ago, when I was playing djembe and conga for a dance class, I decided I wanted to teach myself how to play clave’. I bought a pair of big plastic clavesticks from a music store which rang with an irritating twang in the brain and drew critical comments from the guy I was playing with. I didn’t know where to put the beats and the whole thing was a complete disaster. I gave up and got rid of those things.
Last month I had the opportunity to take a short and very user friendly class in Berserkly with Roberto Borrell, a cuban master of dance and rhythm. It was only 4 Wednesday night classes, but it was really excellent and I finally know how to play clave’. The real secret to learning the clave’ is to practice it while walking by clapping one’s hands and getting in inside the body energy field so it is there when you need it and are dancing, drumming and singing. It sings within you if you practice it enough, much like a sound crop that has been planted and the harvest is forever.
Mr. Borrell got my attention when he said that you do not need clave’ sticks to learn and practice clave”. You only need your body and your hands. He had all of us in the class clap together each lesson. It was awesome for me because it made me feel as though I always have an instrument with me- ME! How perfectly wonderful and accessible that makes it. He did, in fact, show us the best hand positioning and technique for playing clave’ sticks, which I will remember: least effort for best results. You tap one down upon the other with a firm but light and effort free motion. What you don’t do is slam or hit them together.
There are only 2 key clave’ patterns: Son and Rumba. They are almost exactly the same pattern, only one has an extra space in it. Mr. Borrell finally explained “the 6” which is a way of counting for clave’ which I had heard about over and over but never been able to fully comprehend. He had a clear diagram I’ve now committed to memory of the 6 and a vocabulary list which helped me keep from getting too confused in the class. He spent time having us listen to different cuban music and doing what the course was entitled, which was “Finding the Clave’ “. I can’t say I’m that good at it now, but I understand that not all songs start on the first count of the clave’.
I was still lazy and not dong the clave’ walk until the week before the last class, but that week I did several walks and felt that I captured both clave’ rhythms inside of me forever. Such a deal for 4 nights and $45 bucks. And if I feel fuzzy or out of it, I can always do a Clave’ Walk till it’s strong and ringing clear inside of me.