Don’t Cross Me! The Clave & Tumbao In Cuban Music
Mon, 14 May 2012

WHEN I MOVED TO NEW YORK CITY in the early ’80s, I had an extremely small yet functional apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn. Every weekend, the Latin music club on the corner would kick into party mode and people would hang out until all hours, dancing to salsa playing on the neighborhood’s loudest jukebox. I would often come home after a gig and lie in bed, feeling the music pounding out of the club down the street, plus the laughing, squealing, and fighting of my Cuban and Puerto Rican neighbors heading into or coming out of the party. But the bass was at the heart of the music, flowing in a neverending loop: boom–boom–boom–boom.

Although I met some of the great bassists on the New York Latin scene at the time—Andy Gonzalez, Bobby Rodriguez, and Reuben Rodriguez—I didn’t play many Latin gigs during my years there. Recently I had the honor to play with three fantastic Latin players: drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, percussionist Purnell Saturnino, and the great Cuban pianist and composer Hilario Durán. I checked out Hilario’s music extensively before we worked together, and I also thought long and hard about those nights in Brooklyn, lying in bed listening to one-five-five-one, boom–boom–boom– boom. Here are some of my observations about the bass in Cuban music.

All Cuban music follows a clave (pronounced KLAH-vay). The clave, which is the Spanish word for key, is a two-bar rhythmic pattern that repeats throughout an entire song. Just as pop and jazz players lock into a backbeat on beats two and four, Latin players lock into the clave. The clave can be a 3–2 pattern (forward clave) or a 2–3 pattern (reverse clave); the direction is determined by the song’s melody and harmony. For experienced Latin players, the clave is sometimes discussed in advance, or it is just felt when the melody is played or sung.

The basic bass pattern in Cuban music is the tumbao. Example 1 shows a 2–3 son clave, with a tumbao bass line. Note that the bass plays the downbeat only in bar 1. After that, the note on beat four in bar 2 of the tumbao pattern is always tied over to beat one of bar 1. This groove is repeated ad infinitum, with the bass almost never hitting on one! Example 2 shows the same bass line with a 3–2 clave. Note that the tumbao is the same whether the clave is forward or reverse. To get a feel for the clave rhythm, tap your foot on every quarter while clapping the clave with your hands. Got it? Now tap the clave rhythm with your foot while you play the bass line.

Example 3 shows a rumba clave, which is a common variation of the son clave. The rumba clave displaces the last beat on the “three” side of the clave by an eighth-note. Examples 1–3 use a typical harmonic pattern for Cuban music: I–IV–V. Example 4 shows a tumbao over a turnaround in D minor. In solo sections, these patterns might repeat for minutes.

A crossed clave (Spanish: cruzado) is bad news. Crossed clave is the term that Latin players use when a melody, rhythm, or bass line conflicts with the clave rhythm. Since the basic tumbao can be played the same way over a 2–3 or 3–2 clave, it might seem that a bassist never has to worry about staying in the clave, or playing a crossed clave. Wrong.

Every time we play a fill on the bass, we should complement the underlying clave rhythmically. Bass lines and fills need to stay in the clave, or else the “clave police” (as they are called in New York) will give you dirty looks, or worse. A crossed clave is equivalent to a jazz drummer consistently putting the hi-hat on beats one and three, or a rock drummer smacking out the backbeat snare on one and three. Stay on the good side of the music by always listening for the clave being played or implied by the other instruments, and phrasing your fills so they fall rhythmically into the pocket.

Example 5 comes from the pen of Hilario Durán. This is a typical ensemble bass line over a 2–3 rumba clave. The bass line does not mimic the clave rhythm, but it complements the clave pattern by accenting key elements. Note the placement of the notes in the last two bars.

To get the true Cuban bass feeling, check out the recordings of bassists such as Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Andy Gonzalez, and Roberto Occhipinti. Next time, we’ll look at other common Cuban bass lines.

Despite being raised in the woodlands and rolling hills of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, John Goldsby has played on several Latin jazz albums, including Arturo Sandoval’s Mambo Nights [Connector] and Lalo Schifrin’s Latin Jazz Suite [Aleph]. Visit John at

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