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It’s 1979, north coast of California and the cold rain of another winter
storm is pelting my tiny cabin, miles from the nearest paved road—no
phone, no utilities. Gale force winds hurl sheets of water at my
windows and bend the tall redwoods like blades of grass. Inside, a
small woodstove warms my back, a single candle lights the room and a
12-volt car battery powers a tiny stereo playing a Los Muñequitos
record. I’m so intent on finding my way through that maze of rumba
rhythms that I no longer hear the howling and crashing outside. Thirty
years and many storms later this book arrives to help you find your
way through that maze. The Clave Matrix is the first volume of a series
entitled Unlocking Clave and by learning how to unlock clave you will
come to know one of the most comprehensive systems ever developed
for organizing music.

Matrix, from the Latin mater (mother or womb), means a place or point
of origin. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that a matrix is a “...mould in
which something is cast or shaped” and “...a grid-like array of
elements; a lattice.” All of these definitions are accurate descriptions
of the structure of clave music: matrix was the perfect word for this
unique rhythmic system so we chose it despite its use and abuse by
sci-fi movies, fancy cars, rock groups, cartoon characters and what
have you. The following paragraph introduces the array of elements
that constitute the matrix of clave music and summarizes the contents
of this volume.

We will begin the journey as all journeys begin, by putting one foot in
front of the other. We can walk step by step or simply sit and let the
tapping of our foot walk for us. We step to the primary beat cycle,
letting our feet connect our body to the earth, to the music. Once
grounded, we are ready to express the secondary beats—cross-beats
that regularly and systematically contradict the primary beats. This
phenomenon, known as cross-rhythm, presents one of the most
significant challenges in rhythmic understanding: feeling and
expressing two contrasting rhythms in our body at the same time. The
third level of rhythmic counterpoint is the key pattern, or clave, which
divides the primary beat cycle into two rhythmically opposed cells and
generates an alternating momentum like the coils of an electric motor.
Over this supportive structure we will add the fourth and final element
—the lead. In a folkloric setting the lead would most often be played by
a particular drum while in popular genres, such as salsa, the lead could
be a vocal or instrumental solo. Whatever the genre, the lead is a
necessary component, playing the most elaborate and varied phrases
of the ensemble. In Chapter Six of The Clave Matrix we demonstrate
the function of several lead parts: caja, bonkó, and quinto in the
folkloric genres of bembé, abakuá, and rumba, respectively and in the
popular genre we look at a timbales solo and a tres solo.

The Clave Matrix and all of the volumes in the Unlocking Clave series
are based on the premise that the essential structure of sub-Saharan
African rhythm consists of four independent patterns that intersect
according to specific rhythmic principles. In Cuba those principles are
collectively known as clave, a Spanish word, meaning key or code. To
demonstrate the fundamentals of clave music, we will naturally draw
most of our examples from Afro-Cuban folkloric music but of course we
must also examine music from Africa, the original source of these
forms. Often the different types of instruments and their different
timbres obscure the fact that such diverse parts as a Latin jazz bass
line, a drum part from Mali and a marimba part from Ghana all share
the same generative principle. But it was in Cuba that essential
rhythmic elements from Sub-Saharan Africa were first given names
and written down and it was here that those elements would be
married to European harmony. Cuban hybrids pre-date North American
jazz by several decades and they are the most widely used templates
for combining African and European musical sensibilities. Cuban music
has had a pervasive influence on popular music elsewhere in the
Caribbean and throughout Latin America.

In the 1940s, Afro-Cuban music became the conduit through which

African-American music was “re-Africanized” with Afro-Cuban rhythmic
structures and Afro-Cuban instruments (most notably the conga drum).
On the African continent, recordings of Cuban music inspired the first
guitar-based dance bands which began by covering popular Cuban
songs they heard on phonograph records.

This series began as a single book, a way of presenting my lesson

plans to a wider audience. I wished to reach not only conga drummers
and other percussionists, but also non-percussion instrumentalists who
are often at a loss rhythmically when soloing over a clave-based
rhythm section. It’s generally understood that the unifying factor in all
the different aspects of the music is clave itself. However, before
Unlocking Clave there was no book that explained exactly how the
principles that generate clave also generate rhythmically complex
solos, at least not beyond the basic question of which attack-points
coincide with clave. Over the years, the project grew in depth and what
began as a single book logically expanded into a multi-volume series.

Other volumes of Unlocking Clave present Cuban folkloric genres such

as batá, bembé, iyesá and rumba and popular genres such as son
montuno, mambo, songo and timba. Several volumes are devoted
entirely to lead parts: rumba quinto, advanced solo concepts and the
rhythmic elements used in instrumental solos. This first volume reveals
the underlying foundation of all these genres by decoding, in great
detail, the individual strands that make up their complex rhythmic

It’s 1998, north coast of California. This time it’s not winter but a cool
summer night on the beach and burning driftwood is warming us* as
we play our way through that rhythmic maze called rumba. Now that
maze is no longer a mystery to me—all the pieces of the puzzle fit. And
now, having lived this music for more than thirty years, I am certain
The Clave Matrix will help you understand and feel the rhythms, and
will serve as a valuable resource throughout your musical journey.

David Peñalosa
Arcata, California
May, 2009
* Drummers from left: Jesús Alfonso, lead drummer for Los Muñequitos,
the author playing quinto, batá master Regino Jiménez. Standing in
back with chékere: Kim Atkinson. Photo: Howard Kaufman 1998