Academic journal article Current Musicology

A Cross-Cultural Grammar for Temporal Harmony in Afro-Latin Musics: Clave, Partido-Alto and Other Timelines

Academic journal article Current Musicology

A Cross-Cultural Grammar for Temporal Harmony in Afro-Latin Musics: Clave, Partido-Alto and Other Timelines

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article presents an in-depth study of the musical concept called clave direction. The significance and regulative role of clave and similar cyclical timelines (1)in Afro-Latin music have been established by many scholars, including Ned Sublette, Tomas Cruz, H.W. Soebbing, Rebecca Mauleon-Santana, and Ronald Herder. (2) Clave is typically identified as the rhythmic anchor of Cuban music. Furthermore, Eugene Novotney, Hugo "Foca" Machado, Willy Munoz, Jorge Sadi, and Chris Washburne, among other musicians and scholars, have argued that clave is central not only in Cuban music but in all Afro-American music. (3) Although there is agreement on the importance of the concept, previous work has either been precise but culturally narrow in scope, or broad in scope but imprecise in its details. The present work builds on these earlier efforts to establish an understanding of clave direction that is precise, parsimonious (only two concepts suffice), and widely applicable.

My analysis proceeds from the hypothesis that musics emerging from the transatlantic slave trade with significant Yoruba influence share common traits including what has come to be called "clave." Ruth M. Stone links observations of the musical role of clave-type patterns to the geographical origins of the patterns in West Africa, and emphasizes that this pattern-as-concept was brought to the Americas with the transatlantic slave trade. In particular, she states that clave "fits, of course, with other patterns played at the same time ... Therefore, it has a role in keeping everything appropriately linked. Players use it as a reference point to synchronize the drum, bell, and vocal parts" (Stone 2005:81). (4) D. A. Tobias has written that "the clave beat is the foundation of Latin-American rhythm and practically all of the other instruments are guided by this beat" (Tobias 1965:270). More recently, Arturo Rodriguez has argued that "clave is the key to understanding how Afro-Cuban music is arranged and flows" and that it is "a concept that is fundamental to Afro-Latin music" (Rodriguez 2003:41). Consequently, clave should be understood not only as a pattern but also as a critical musical concept (Rodriguez 2003:41-45; Mauleon-Santana 2005:5-8; Spiro and Ryan 2006:12-17).

The word "clave" has several meanings, (5) so it is important to specify which I am addressing here. Three of these meanings are well-known: (1) claves, the instrument; (2) clave in the harmonic sense, as in "the key of C major" (in Spanish); and (3) a small family of patterns, which is what musicians typically have in mind for clave. I refer to the latter as the clave proper. This article focuses on a fourth meaning of clave, one frequently discussed but rarely investigated. I refer to this as clave direction. Clave direction is a concept and a rhythmic-regulative principle. It is analogous to the key of a piece of music, but instead of governing tonality, it governs fine-scale local timing (mostly without regard to pitch (6)). Clave direction gives a composer or improviser a set of preferred timing options and the appropriate places within each phrase to place them (a sort of micro-phrasing), along with acceptable ways to break these rules (more freely in batucada than in Candomble, more so in axe than in samba, in timba than in songo, etc.). Just as the key determines the tonal center of the piece, the clave direction is the overarching determinant of the timing preferences for the piece, but like its tonal counterpart, it allows for variety in musical expression, and even tricks, puzzles and multi-layered playfulness in its execution.

In order to make the most artistic and culturally sensitive use of this principle, I offer an approach to understanding clave direction that I call wide-sense clave. In this wider sense, clave-the-concept denotes not just the existence of specific patterns, but the relationships that any pattern may have with a family of associated patterns. …

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