La Clave de Cuba
In modern Spanish, clave means the “key” that unlocks the door (llave). In the Cuban dockyards of the 18th century, ships were held together, not by iron nails, but by wooden pegs called clavijas. No instruments were allowed in the dockyards, so Cuban slaves and prisoners working on the ships would bang the claviers together in an alternating syncopated and unsyncopated pattern to help keep time. Today, claves are the simple percussive instrument, made of finely crafted hardwood, that when struck together, brings forth la clave, the rhythmic of temporal organization behind much of Cuba’s music, such as rumba, conga, mambo, salsa, Latin jazz and timba.
The pair of claves are considered sexed, with the Macho being about eight inches long and the Hembra a half inch shorter. The instruments have no resonance; the sound is short and staccato, yet played properly, they can cut through any ensemble, providing the musicians with backbone from which the playing can be unified. Regardless of which style or instrumental composition, the music must hold a conscious rhythmic relationship to La Clave.
From both a historical and modern cultural perspective, the pair of Claves represent Cuba’s duality; a juxtaposition of Afro-American vs. Spanish European culture, a matriarchal vs. patriarchal legacy, and the contrasts between Roman Catholicism and the Lucumi religion (Santeria). La Clave is the arch that holds the Cuban culture together and praised as a symbol of Cuba’s heritage.