Todos Sentimos la Clave

It is a sleepy Sunday like all the others, when the city slows down before next week’s hustle. On an uptown-bound 6 train, passengers hold groceries at their feet, burrow into their scarves, and nod off under the amber lights. The conductor echoes overhead, lingering on the puh-lease of stand clear of the closing doors. It is that attitude you never quite get from a pre-recorded message – a voice that knows exactly when we are being held up by a couple of drummers moving their congas from one train car to the next. They soon scurry on, big smiles on their faces. Their joy is almost offensive on this cold, dull day. A collective inward groan moves through the space as the four men set up their stools – they will soon ruin our quiet. Sloth-like, we begin to adjust into position, ready for the onslaught of sound.

There are around four kinds of passengers in the presence of subway drummers. First, there is the defiant one. He will keep his earbuds in, eyes glued to the floor. Sometimes, he will even close his eyes. Of course, he was not sleeping before – this is simply an exercise in proving how unbothered he is. Opposite to this, there is the second, indignant type: he will smack his teeth and move as far away from the drummers as possible, as though exposed to some plague. Likely to laugh at his intensity are the third and fourth types; they find his anger unwarranted. The third is simply uncertain, reluctant – she will first attempt to ignore the performers, but will soon find herself listening halfheartedly. The fourth, instead, is fully invested. Generous with her attention, she will immediately pull off her headphones or close her book, eyes fixed on the show, likely to clap politely once it all ends.

There are also those rare occasions in which performers rouse us from our spite, carefully taking us somewhere beyond these typical predispositions altogether. I didn’t expect it from these percussionists, whose skill felt impossible beneath that blind joy of theirs. Perhaps they sensed this reservation, and began to play right away to prove themselves, no introductions needed. They could only set a rhythm so infectious that it busted through even the most jaded of us – the rhythm of la clave, a beat that permeates hearts with some universal spirit, passed down through Afro-Caribbean diasporic channels and across the Americas, such that my grandmother used to say she didn’t know a single person who couldn’t feel it – todos sentimos la clave.

There is the youngest of the bunch, a teenager, who first sets the beat. His rosewood sticks, a pair of claves, are worn yet their sound is still bright. This pierces the air, waking up the tired train car. The drummers pool in, their hardened hands filling the space with warm bursts. I start to believe, though I always forget, that yes, my grandmother must be right. They’re playing a guaguancó, and suddenly there is that recognition and return across land, across bodies, across time. The clave is inhabiting us: there is foot-tapping, head-nodding, and – yes, even joy – spreading like smiles on the faces of everyone around me. I imagine we look silly, insane even, to anyone who sees us as our windows merge with those of the speeding train on the adjacent express track.

These rumberos hooked us. Surely, they have swayed us enough to earn a dollar from most – already, people have dug out their wallets. Then the quintero does something baffling – he has something more for us. He’s switched into high gear, shifting out of pattern, which, he’s supposed to do: the quinto is the improvisational drum. But he is betraying the clave! He has stepped out of it altogether, discordant, bullying the beat. He is not off, though. What could be terrible if he went just a step too far is, for now, brilliant. My mind is lost – the only way to reckon with this is to feel it. I focus on that corporeal explosion as it blasts forth and I sense that the world is rumbling – the train hums, my body vibrates as each slap of the conga filters through me, and soon a loud “¡Wepa!” escapes out of me.

I am shocked at myself. I never say wepa. The music drove some ancestral force through me. One that is transferable, as the white kids in the corner felt it too, yelling out their own “Woo!” Si, todos sentimos la clave – y, aveces, más.