Clave literally means KEY. It is the rhythmic key and basis for many styles of music including: African, traditional and modern Afro-Cuban, Mambo, Son, Afro-Brazillian, Latin Jazz, New Orleans style, blues, and more.
The clave rhythm has its origins in Africa. Many different patterns and songs use the clave as the source of rhythmic foundation.
There are many variations, but two common clave patterns are rumba and son. Rumba clave has a more syncopated feel. In the traditional setting the rumba clave is swung and feels almost like it is being subdivided by three’s. 3 down beats and 2 up beats spread over the 2 bar phrase. Son clave feels slightly more grounded and less syncopated. 4 down beats and 1 up beat spread over the 2 bar phrase.
There is also a Brazilian clave. It is similar to the son and rumba claves, for different reasons. The 3 side of son is the same, the second stroke of the 2 side is displaced by an eighth note. This clave has more of pull toward the 3 over 4 or 6 over 8 implied polyrhythm.
This push-pull relationship between various parts of a traditional percussion group is what characterizes the style. Some rhythms are straighter (palitos), some are swung (clave, chekere, congas). All the parts weave and interlock, and there is a constant flow that is unmistakable. Many, if not all the parts, can call and respond to other voices within the ensemble. The quinto player, the soloist, to chose either straighter or swung rhythms to dance over the top of the ensemble. The quinto player usually starts with short ideas, and as the intensity builds, more complex and longer phrases are played.
In modern R & B, the clave sound is often used in programmed beats, generally as an effect and less a foundation.
This is just a basic description of the clave. As you become more familiar with this rhythm, you will begin to hear it in EVERYTHING!!!