Sunday, June 3, 2007

Clave and the Ever-Changing Salsa Dance

I'm reading in a salsa forum and one person comments, "Beware of the Clave... it is returning." No it’s not!

First, it never left. It’s the core of salsa music. Second, it’s much harder to find, since musicians don’t play by "rules" any more than dancers do.

Dancing is like other artistic activity--it's a living, growing art and will not be the same tomorrow as it is today. Salsa has changed considerably in the last 5 years and it will continue changing over time.

Some people hate the tricks, acrobatics, and gymnastic moves from today's competitors, some love it. Traditional styles will continue to influence, but most arts move forward rather than returning to their simpler times. We can all argue whether "moving forward" is better or not, but arts evolve over time with or without our approval.

Salsa continues this evolution and I see growth at both ends of the spectrum. There are more people adding tricks, gymnastics and complex patterns, as some stretch the boundaries in an effort to be unique. There is also a set of people working traditional Cuban styles, some integrating hip-hop, ballroom, modern jazz, tango, and/or other dances. The overall spectrum of "normal" dancing grows wider over the years.

It’s just like jazz music, which started at one point and today includes a wide variety of music that is considered “jazz”. (Musicians argue for hours just like dancers about what is “real” jazz and what is not… but the music just keeps on moving in different directions.)

As for the clave returning, I’m not so optimistic. It would be nice if a majority of the people actually could find 1 and know about the 8-count structure. Counting and the basic musical outline is NOT the end, but I’m amazed how many people don’t understand that simple structure. If they don’t get the simpler 8-count concept, I’m not holding my breath they'll be hearing or feeling the clave anytime soon.

Today it’s harder for people to hear/feel the clave in most tunes, as the music is evolving as well. Many modern salsa songs are based on "implied clave"; NO clave is actually playing, although the rest of the traditional feel is there. Some tunes drop the clave for sections, and at points the horns, other percussion and voices make it tough to hear the clave, if it’s being played at all.

In days past, a vocalist or dedicated percussionist played the clave. Today it’s often the timbale player who holds down that fort, but at points he drops it because he only has 2 hands and there are more instruments within his reach. Clave is a very complex animal and some tunes are 3-2 rather than 2-3, some songs change between the two in the middle of the song AND even 3-2 or 2-3 clave have a traditional variation that changes the feel slightly. (I have another article in the wings will will detail clave and some standard variations.)

That is a very, very, very long way of saying “clave” as we know it from days past is probably not coming back, UNLESS we train up a large set of dancers to feel/hear it AND the musicians decide to focus on it. I hear more and more music in the clubs that is less traditional, with less focus on the clave, and more focus on the vocals and melody. The average dancer hears the overall sound and could care less about the traditional role of the clave. They like the music or they don't, and the clave is simply part of the package or not. I don't see them rejecting a tune because they can't figure out the clave direction.

With the new TV shows showing more modern salsa dancing (with ballroom, jazz, hip-hop and international stylings) it changes the public's concept of salsa dancing. New dancers don’t usually go back to the history of any dance, they are attracted to what it is NOW, and they start there and move forward.

Excellence in the arts generally comes from standing on the shoulders of the past giants. Artists always push the envelope and salsa dancing parallels the music scene in terms of changing over time. Many will wish it was like the good old days of 2007 when we look back from 2012 or beyond.

Change happens, enjoy the ride.
It takes an awful lot of effort to make everything look effortless.
-Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero