Remembering Tony Allen, a bonafide African music hero

The co-creator of Afrobeat and one of the greatest and most influential drummers ever

In 1971, Fela Kuti & The Africa ’70 toured and made a live album with the late Ginger Baker. At the time, Africa ’70 already had a resident drummer in Tony Allen, however, the brief entrance of another drummer—albeit a celebrated and widely acclaimed one – gave them validation as well as a proposition of the sound and ideal of the then newly patented genre, Afrobeat. The LP is a time capsule of combination and collision, between a band finding its feet and a musician who was already regarded as a force of nature.

‘Live with Ginger Baker’ came about at a time when Fela’s madcap experiment – with influences from Jazz, Highlife, Funk and Afro-Cuban rhythms – was still being developed, and although the compositions were bold and sometimes colourful, the band’s sound had yet to fully shed its big band jazz leanings for its full-on Afrobeat flavour. The interlocking groove of rhythm guitar, tenor guitar and bass guitar which played a pivotal role in defining the Afrobeat sound had not yet been invented, the horns didn’t have the level of brassiness in future recordings, and vocal call-and-response chants weren’t here yet.

At this point, though, Tony Allen’s drumming was the band’s most refined element, which wasn’t even remotely Allen at his best—compared to his subsequent work. His metronomic sense of timing and dazzling fluidity was already made apparent, and while many like to cite the final track—his drum duet with Ginger Baker—as a major display,  “Yeye de Smell,” off that same album, shows this quite definitively. While both drummers are present on the song, Allen stood out with his interplay which juxtaposed Baker’s energy with tact. Simply put, Baker was the thunder while Allen was the lightening.

By the following year, Fela & Africa ’70 had become full-bodied and much more distinct. The band released ‘Shakara’, the album which was widely regarded by musicologists as the first true Afrobeat record, and Tony Allen quickly solidified his inimitable role. In a band with multiple moving parts, Allen controlled songs from the outside, by being a master of tempo and made sure there were no clogs or unhinged cogs in the constantly spinning wheel. At various points, any instrument(s)—including Fela’s voice—could be the focal point, however, Allen, especially in his partnership with percussionist Henry “Perdido” Koffi, was the driver.

Bonafide Afrobeat classic, “Gentleman”, is a prime example of this dynamic. The song is mainly revered for the phenomenal horn solo in the beginning and Fela’s sharp denunciation of European gentlemanly standards, however, there’s an evocative quality to Allen’s work. The slow-moving and sublime drumming provides the perfect amount of space for Fela’s aggression to properly boil, cackling just behind the lead singer’s oscillation between mockery and sneering, which perfectly exemplified Tony Allen’s superpower: making everyone around him sound better.

For him, showing out was never the point; it was about playing in service of making music that entrances listeners. “I know I can make my drums bring the house down if I have to, but I know how to make it subtle. You listen to it flow like a river”, he once explained in an interview with The Guardian. Although he played in steady cycles, Allen was a full-bodied drummer who worked his flexible limbs with masterful control. He was effortlessly vivid, creating the illusion that listeners, through their earphones, were behind his drum kit and could do what he was doing.

That level of skill was due, in part, to absorbing influences and years of practice. Allen was a self-confessed acolyte of Jazz legends such as Art Blakey, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, and he credited them for nurturing his understanding of the extensive use of hi-hats since the drummers at home mostly kept them “close.” He also noted that practising on pillows, on inspiration from Jazz drummer Frank Butler, helped his flexibility. Relying on his innovative, keen-eyed approach to drumming, all of that came together to make a unique and seminal style, which subsequently became the Afrobeat trademark.

After about fifteen years of working with Fela—he was also a member of the mid to late ‘60s Highlife-Jazz band, Koola Lobitos—Tony Allen exited his role as drummer and musical director of Africa ‘70 in 1979, and he briefly returned in 1980 for ‘Music of Many Colours’, Fela’s joint album with the American soul artist Roy Ayers. In the years after his departure, Allen worked with several other African artists, including King Sunny Ade, and he also released his own albums; ‘No Accommodation in Lagos, No Discrimination’, on which he was backed by Africa ’70, and ‘Nepa (Never Expect Power Always)’, the first of several projects with the collective he formed, The Afro Messengers.

Continuing in the lineage of his previous works, Tony Allen’s music was socially inclined, sans the militant edge of Fela. Addressing the state’s infamous traffic jams and the exorbitant cost of housing, “No Accommodation” speaks to a Lagos reality that remains prevalent, while “Nepa” mocks Nigeria’s shoddy power supply, an issue that has remained unchanged even with several name changes to the country’s power generation body.

While he never stopped speaking truth to power, a significant part of the narrative of his latter days was his constant experimentation. By the ‘90s, Allen was incorporating elements from a wide palette of genres, infusing their texture in daring but well-measured ways. “The Same Blood”, a standout from ‘Black Voices’ in 1999 shrewdly reworks the anti-racism song, “No Discrimination”, adding electronica elements while deconstructing the original composition.

Regardless of the sonic terrain he veered into, Tony Allen always made sure to emphasise that he was an Afrobeat drummer, and it constantly showed in the music. He played drums on the title track of French singer, Charlie Gainsbourg’s 2007 album, ‘5:55’, imbuing the sophsti-pop song with a languid torque and his trademark flexibility, in a way that sounded fresh and distinctly familiar. That appearance was also emblematic of his resurgence to prominence in the 2000s.

On “Music is my Radar”, their 1999 hit single by English rock band, Blur, frontman Damon Albarn repeated sang Tony Allen’s praises, leading to an international profile boost for the drummer, and it also laid the foundation for extensive collaboration between the two. After appearing on “Every Season”, off Allen’s 2002 album, ‘Homecooking’, Albarn invited the drummer onto two band projects.

The first was alternative rock super-group, the Good, the Bad & the Queen, which released two albums—a 2007 self-titled debut, and ‘Merrie Land’ in 2018—and included Paul Simonon (Clash) and Simon Tong (the Verve). The second was Rocket Juice & the Moon, an experimental funk band that included Flea of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and released a 2012 self-titled album with multiple guest appearances that ranged from Erykah Badu and M.anifest.

While some of his experimental work also involved collaborations with Techno pioneers, Jeff Mills and Moritz Von Oswald trio, Tony Allen’s solo work in the past decade became a full circle act of sorts. Between 2014 and 2017 when he released ‘Film of Life’ and ‘The Source’, Allen’s music was a thoughtful and largely well-executed attempt at uniting Afrobeat and Jazz, using his mastery of the former to reinterpret the latter. In what was undoubtedly a personal achievement, Allen was able to record and release ‘A  Tribute to Art Blakey & the Messengers’, a short project which subtly reimagined several compositions written and performed by one of his idols, including the hard-bop classic, “A Night in Tunisia”.

Earlier this year, in ‘Rejoice’, we finally got Tony Allen’s joint project with South African Jazz luminary, Hugh Masekela, which was recorded in the UK back in 2010. The album is a product of respect between two consummate musicians, and it also celebrates the innovative spirit of African music. Listening to ‘Rejoice’ after the news of Tony Allen’s passing last Thursday, it feels like a ray of heavenly light in these days when anxiety and paranoia are constantly hovering around. Between Masekela’s beaming horn solos and his weathered voice, and Allen’s pattering polyrhythms, ‘Rejoice’ is a calming and invigorating dose of optimism from two African music legends who always sought to bring light through their music.

In comparison to Masekela and other revered legends like Fela and Manu Dibango, Tony Allen didn’t have a singular supernova moment like his colleagues, however, his influence was just as clear. Across his sprawling catalogue, he personified the type of greatness that spoke for itself in the music, greatly and positively altering African music in a way that reverberated all over the music world. Tony Allen is a bonafide African music hero who also managed to become one of the greatest to ever sit behind a drum kit. May his myth never be diminished or forgotten.

[mc4wp_form id=”26074″]

Dennis is not an interesting person. Tweet Your Favourite Playboi Carti Songs at him @dennisadepeter