The Legba Beat and the Migration of Styles Across the Globe

It is no coincidence that we chose New Orleans Funk as the opening style of the Funk chapter in my book, The Bassist’s Bible. New Orleans Funk is not only a foundation in the larger style of Funk, historically, but we also used it to introduce the musical concept of syncopation. We also did this because my co-author, Mick Berry, is from New Orleans and he could see the influence so plainly. While playing with him for years I could hear this influence infuse so many of the styles that we played together, in the different bands we were in. Before playing with him I had no idea how deep this influence was, across so many styles, not just in the Funk, Jazz, and Early Rock roots that New Orleans was famous for, but also in so many other types of music around the world.

For example, the similarity of the “Legba Beat” (a particular style associated with New Orleans Funk) to the Afro-Cuban “Tumbao” (the bass line played in Salsa) is un-mistakable. That pulse, is partially due to playing the “And of Two“, and just seems to open up peoples’ heads and propel their bodies to movement. It also pops up everywhere.

To explain: if the music you are familiar with is, say, Rock and Roll, and you are counting (or feeling) a 4/4 measure that uses this “And of Two” in a musical phrase, this beat comes at such an odd place that it catches your notice, whether you are a musician or not. Don’t worry!  If you are not quite following this, I will explain further.

Here is what it looks like to play the And of Two. For those who don’t read music, it looks more intimidating than it is. Again, hang in for a minute. You may get this.

When you play music (or dance) you normally count (or feel) the beat as 1 2 3 4 (again in 4/4 time.) If you break that up so each beat gets two counts, it becomes 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Those “ands” are called the offbeats or upbeats and the numbers (1234) are the downbeats.

So let’s apply this to a musical example, in this case showing the And of Two.


The count is:                      one and    two      AND   three and   four and

The ALL CAPS “count” above corresponds to the “And of Two” and shows where you play it, just below the note on the example. The other symbols show rests where you do not play. I’m sure you can see the logic of where the name comes from. Awesome. You are getting this right? You will be a bassist in no time.

It may not seem like much but when you take this beat and put it into a rhythmic phrase, it really jumps. Let’s look at a comparison to see the difference. Here is a standard Back Beat, a common pattern in Rock, where the snare drum is played right on the 2 and the 4 of a 4/4 measure (which are the downbeats. You are catching on right?)  The Back Beat is probably pretty familiar to you. It goes like this:  Image

 The count here is:           one            TWO           three         FOUR
or showing the offbeats:  one   and    TWO   and  three  and  FOUR and
You have undoubtedly heard this millions of times. It sounds like Boom BAP Boom BAP. (I am not showing the bass drum notes (the”Boom”) to simplify the example.)
By comparison the Legba Beat looks like this:
  The count here is:       ONE    and    two     AND   three and FOUR and

Much different.

If you understood that, or even just got a feel for it, congratulations! I spent rehearsal after rehearsal with my Jazz Fusion band “Taxi” in the 70’s failing to be able to instinctively ‘feel’ this “And of Two” beat. I felt like such a dweeb. Though I was actually playing an Afro Cuban Tumbao and not a Legba Beat, both styles share this “And of Two” and I kept wanting to play right ON the TWO beat, the downbeat, (or move the ONE of the “count” to the And of Two.) In other words, I could play it but I could not feel it. It was so cool and so wrong (in such a good way) that It drove me crazy and exploded my head. Once it was explained to me (decades later) it seemed so easy.  Music theory does not have to be all that mysterious. Right?

I was going to show you a Tumbao example here, but I do not want any heads exploded at this point. Messy, messy. My blog would suffer and I am so sick of cleaning things. Bad Idea, so I will keep it simple (which is hard to do if you are me) and make a relatively short post out of it instead.

From hearing the Neville Brothers play “Fire on the Bayou” to the Grateful Dead playing “Not Fade Away”, all the way to Salsa and Afro-Cuban Jazz, you hear this influence that came from Africa through the Caribbean to New Orleans. If you keep studying, you also hear those same styles go back to their sources, mixing back in with the native cultures to create Reggae and Afrobeat, and Soukous and Rai, and countless other styles, which then, of course, come back to the U.S., yet again, and influence musicians here for another round of migration as the music continues to evolve.

You will find this, and lots of other related information in my book:  The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco. Even if you are not a bassist, you may find it interesting. Perhaps reading it might inspire you and make you a bassist.