The word “clave” refers to the round hardwood stick used as a percussion instrument in tropical latin music (Afro-Cuban, salsa, merengue, cha cha, etc.). It looks a little like a hot dog without the bun. Clave also refers to the 2/3 or 3/2 rhythmic backbone of all tropical music, the rhythmic glue that holds it all the different polyrhythms together. You hear this rhythmic pattern and sound in all Cuban music, most Puerto Rican salsa, and a great deal of African music as well. The clave rhythm started in Africa but was perfected and universally adopted in Cuban music. The hardwood sticks have a sharp, penetrating sound that can be heard even over a large orchestra of loud, blazing horns.
The origin of claves is fascinating. All the Spanish ships going to Cuba and the New World after Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 were made in the port of Seville from trees in nearby forests. There was a lot of shipbuilding as the Spanish continued their voyages of discovery and built their strongholds in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. Soon the Spanish countryside around Seville had been deforested and the Spanish had to start building their sailing vessels in Cuba.
The Spanish soon found, however, that Cuban hardwood, culled from tropical forests there, was far superior to Spanish wood: it was harder, rot resistant, and did not bow or warp easily. African slaves, whom the Moors brought to Spain as slaves prior to the Christian reconquista of 1492, were then sent to Cuba to provide the shipwright labor. The boats were built without nails (nails were very, very expensive then) ; pegs were used to fasten the wood planking together. The Africans had been deprived of their drums by the Spanish, but many could still remember the music they left behind in Africa. One day one of them picked up two of the discarded hardwood pegs and struck them together. The sound was loud, sharp, and penetrating. The Africans started fashioning these pegs into smooth, round sticks that could be used as rhythm instruments. They could perpetuate rhythms from Africa, and these claves have remained an important part of all salsa and Afro-cuban bands to this day.