A Short History of Five Notes

Last updated: 25 february, 2011 - 14:36 GMT

Sean Paul, Missy Elliot and Habib Koite all use a deceptively simple but hypnotic beat from the heart of Africa in some of their biggest hits. But what is it? Music journalist Rita Ray journeys to Ghana to find out.

  • The five notes go by many names in different countries and although their origins lie in West Africa, they have travelled back and forth across the Atlantic. In most cases they form a powerful underlying rhythm which is repeated throughout a song during a performance: a group of three beats, answered by another two beats, followed by three beats, answered by two beats, and so on.

    On this map, you can explore a few of the places and musical styles mentioned in the documentary which draw their strength from the five notes.

    • Chicago, USA

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      The five notes surfaced again in the 1950s in the United States, where they became associated with one of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll, Bo Diddley.

      The 'Bo Diddley beat' injected the five notes into the heartbeat of rock 'n' roll, and reflect Cuban and New Orleans influences on Bo's music.

      In this example, the five notes dominate the entire song- with both the drums and Bo Diddley's guitar playing the rhythm from start to finish.

      The Bo Diddley beat became an important influence on black music in the decade that followed, particularly in soul and funk.

      It also became a defining influence for many British rock acts, including The Rolling Stones and The Animals.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • Accra, Ghana

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      The origins of the five notes lie centuries ago in West Africa, specifically in the bell patterns of traditional music.

      During the era of African independence in the 1950s and 60s, many artists began to revisit these traditions, and use them to assert Africa's new cultural autonomy.

      Ghana's Kpanlogo dance became wildly popular during this era - and was heavily based on the five notes, played on a traditional bell.

      JB Korantang Crentisl is now one of Ghana's master drummers. In his youth he was a member of the drumming troupes that made the Kpanlogo a hit throughout the country.

      In this performance for the BBC World Service, the five notes are played on the bell as an introduction, before the rest of the group join in.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • New York City, USA

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      The five notes remain a major rhythmic element in US hip-hop and R&B, as they have been ever since the era of Motown and Smokey Robinson.

      Missy Elliot and Timbaland's Pass That Dutch is one of many songs that are closely based on five notes rhythms.

      In this clip, the five notes are spread between Timbaland's bassline, and a chorus of voices behind Missy Elliot.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • New Orleans, USA

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      New Orleans has often been an entry point for Caribbean influence into the US - particularly through the Mardi Gras carnival.

      In the 1940s, Professor Longhair was one of the first artists to blend New Orleans blues piano with a typically Cuban use of the five notes, the clave.

      In this example, a New Orleans blues about Mardi Gras is overlaid with the five notes played in the Cuban style - on wooden clave sticks. It is as though one part of the band is still in Havana, even as Professor Longhair is singing about Mardi Gras.

      Photo: Leni Sinclair

      The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • London, UK

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      In the 1960s, the five notes travelled back across the Atlantic again, this time to Europe.

      For many British rock bands of the era, the five notes became a way to connect with the African-American origins of blues and soul.

      Not Fade Away by The Rolling Stones is one of the most famous examples.

      Originally a Buddy Holly song, The Rolling Stones' version uses the five notes in the style of Bo Diddley, with both the guitar and drums playing the rhythm throughout.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • Havana, Cuba

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      The rhythmic energy of the five notes is no where stronger than in the music of the Caribbean.

      In Cuba, the five notes are one of rhythms are known as clave - or key - the rhythmic element that unlocks Cuba's African heritage.

      The clave is present in almost all Cuban music, but it is particularly prominent in traditional 'son' music.

      In the form of salsa, derived from son, the influence of the Cuban clave has spread across the rest of the Spanish speaking world.

      In this example of son from the Lecuona Cuban Boys, the five notes can be heard throughout as part of the percussion, played in the traditional Cuban manner on wooden clave sticks.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • Kingston, Jamaica

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      The five notes continue to resurface and reappear in music across the Caribbean - a reminder of the region's deep cultural links to Africa.

      Jamaican dancehall music is one style that has found endless new ways to reinvent the five notes and re-combine them with modern production techniques.

      In this example from Sean Paul, based on the Diwali beat, the five notes appear in a mix of handclaps, synths and a digital bassline.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • Detroit, USA

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      In the 1960s and 70s, the five notes became an important element in soul and funk in the United States. For some artists, they represented a way of reasserting the African origins of black music at a time of great social upheaval.

      Even in songs without an explicit political message, the five notes became increasingly prominent.

      Mickey's Monkey was one of Smokey Robinson and Motown's biggest hits in the early 1960s, and was often used to finish Motown live shows.

      It is based on a clear, Bo Diddley style five note pattern throughout, with drums, horns, piano and guitar all playing the pattern in unison.

      See also:

      Back to map

    • Bamako, Mali

      To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

      Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

      The five notes have appeared in modern music across Africa, from Congolese soukous and Nigerian afrobeat to Ghanaian hiplife - reflecting the continuing influence of both Caribbean music and traditional African bell patterns.

      In Malian music, the five notes appear frequently in drum and percussion patterns.

      Habib Koite is one of Mali's great contemporary singers and guitarists. In Wassiye, he uses the five notes to create a gently percussive backdrop to his singing.

      See also:

      Back to map

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.