GRANDMASTER OF THE BEATS
— A collection of Tributes to Tony Allen (20 July 1940 – 30 April 2020)
Since his passing on April 30, the grandmaster beatmaker, TONY ALLEN, has commanded so much public attention with tributes pouring in torrent on his great soul, spotlighting his immense contribution to the enterprise of music making, especially Drumming.
As if in a premonition homecoming to his land of birth, Papa TeeA as he is fondly called, had come home in December in what was tagged: “No Shaking Homecoming Tribute Concert”. It was also designed as his pre-80th birthday anniversary gig in Lagos, according to the organisers.
The programme which flagged off with a concert on December 29, 2019 at The Reserve on Victoria Island, Lagos, was courtesy the push by Olalekan Babalola, the two-time Grammy-co-winner percussionist, and Ayoola Sadare, the founder/director of the Lagos International Jazz Festival. The concert, a night of great conviviality and good music with Papa TeeA on beat-rampage, also featured supports by his old friends and associates: the flautist Tee Mac Itsueli with whom he once run a band in the 70s; and younger friends, the folksy songstress Adunni (leader of the Nefertiti, who had been on many tours with him in recent years); the guitarist-singer, Empress Aderinsola and the Rock music guitarist-performer, Dabyna aka ‘Son of Rock’.
That same night, a pre-80th birthday Cake was cut amid toast and singing in a session superintended by his old friend Benson Idonije, Fela’s first manager, who reputedly recruited him (Allen) into the Koola Lobitos. At an informal session before the concert, Allen and Idonije, who both confessed that was the first time they were meeting in 40 years, since Allen left Fela’s band) tried to catch up on the Koola Lobitos days. There was so much to reflect on, with Allen saying he would wish to return this year to work with some younger Nigerians, in particular mentioning Burna Boy (aka (aka African Giant’), whom he said is closest to the rhythmic tradition of Afrobeat. “I will like to work with him, please tell him…”, he told Idonije. Wading into the afrobeat vs afrobeats debate, he said he appreciated the music of the younger hip-hop acts, whose music has been dubbed Afrobeats, but offered that they needed some orientation to see how they can benefit better from the rich resources of Afrobeat as a musical concept. “My son is also a producer of afro hip-hops, but we cannot work togther he believes I am analogue while he is digital”, he said smiling…
The three-week final visit also featured a workshop for about 20 young drummers in a session called “Legendary Afrobeat Drummer TONY ALLEN Gives Back”, which held at a studio in Ogba, Lagos.
The visit was designed as a prelude to a proposed July visit during which an elaborate programme was to be staged to mark his 80th birthday. A committee had even been set up steered by Lekan Babalola, to fashion the 80th birthday celebration. All that is gone now, that the Grandmaster ofBEATS has bowed out to a glorious ancestral sojourn.
Here we compile a few of the reports and tributes that have been published since his exit.
His works can be seen here:
How Fela’s drummer, Tony Allen, died
…His Life and Times
By Nehru Odeh
He was Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s right hand man. But there was no distinguishing him and his beats. But Tony Allen, the legendary drummer who is credited with creating Afrobeat with Fela, has passed on at 79. Allen’s manager confirmed that he died in Paris earlier today of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Allen was such a huge influence on Afrobeat that by the time he exited Fela’s band, he needed four drummers to replace him.
Since the news of his death broke, his friends and colleagues from across the globe have been reacting and paying glowing tributes to him. Sandra Izsadore said on her Facebook page, “I am devastated by this loss. I just spoke with Tony and reached out to him today when his manager called me an hour later to tell me that Tony has transcended. May he rest in peace.”
The British musician and producer Brian Eno said Allen was “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”.
The rapper Biz Markie described him as “an all-time titan spanning continents, eras, and sounds. He didn’t just invent new pockets, he was a sorcerer who fundamentally and effortlessly redefined rhythm.”
Flea said: “The epic Tony Allen, the greatest drummer on earth has left us. What a wild man with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove. Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it.”
Major Lazer described Allen as the GOAT amongst GOATS and the inventor o rhythm. “Do your reseach. Legends never die,” he said.
In a roller coaster career spanning more than 50 years, Allen, who was born in Lagos in 1940, took Afrobeat to such great heights that it went on to become one of the totemic genres of 20th century African music. Allen, who taught himself how to play the drum started playing a drum kit at 18, while working as an engineer for a Nigerian radio station and was influenced by juju music, which his father listened to while growing up. He later developed a huge interest in American jazz and the growing highlife scene in Nigeria and Ghana.
In an interview with The Wire, Allen discussed how he found his own style of playing and developed the Afrobeat sound while studying the work of his favorite drummers.
“I was listening to a lot of jazz. I was listening to Blue Note records, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, listening to many of these drummers. Gene Krupa was the first one—though he was not playing the same style like them there, you know? But watching drummers playing in my country, I knew that something was wrong somewhere. Why is it that they don’t use their hi-hats? It’s there, it’s always there, but it’s closed, they don’t use it—well, they used it, but that thing has a pedal, you know? I felt that this thing should be like riding a bicycle—you have good legs, you have pedals, you need to put [your feet] on both pedals to make you move.”
Allen perfected the art of playing both highlife and jazz, a rare combination at the time, that by the time he met the Afrobeat King, Fela, he was carried away by Allen’s dexterity, even though they had played together as sidemen in the Lagos circuit. Before Allen joined Fela he had played claves wih Sir Victor Olaiya’s highlife band, the Cool Cats as well as with Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian musicians and the Melody Makers.
In 1964, when Fela invited Allen to audition for the jazz-highlife band he was forming, he complimented Allen’s unique sound: “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” Thus Allen became an original member of Fela’s “Koola Lobitos” highlife-jazz band. However In 1969, following an educational trip to the United States, where he met Sandra Izsadore (a huge influence on him), Fela and the newly renamed Africa ’70 band developed a new kind of sound called Afrobeat, mixing the heavy groove and universal appeal of soul with jazz, highlife, and the polyrhythmic template of Yoruba conventions.
Allen once recounted how he and Fela wrote in 1970: “Fela used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band (Africa ’70). I was the only one who originated the music I played. Fela would ask what type of rhythm I wanted to play.… You can tell a good drummer because we… have four limbs… and they are… playing different things… the patterns don’t just come from Yoruba… but other parts of Nigeria and Africa.”
However, having recorded more than 40 albums with Fela, their relationship started getting sour in the late 1970s over royalties/remunerations and recognition. As inventor of the rhythms that underpinned Afrobeat and musical director, Allen felt especially slighted. Fela stood his ground, stating that he would get the royalties for his songs. Fela did support Allen’s three solo recordings: Jealousy (’75), Progress (’77), No Accommodation For Lagos (’79), but by 1979, Allen chose to leave Africa ’70, taking many members with him.
“‘What makes me decide it’s time to go? It’s … everything…and (his) carelessness…like he doesn’t care, like he doesn’t know …he doesn’t feel he’s done anything (wrong). And with all the parasites around too…. there were 71 people on tour by now and only 30 working in the band….you got to ask why.
Those guys were sapping Fela of his Force, of his Music.’ So Tony moved on, once again in search of his own sound.”
But Tony Allen’s exit from Africa ’70, created a huge vacuum that Fela needed four drummers to replace him. Allen then started his own band in Lagos before relocating to Paris France, where he later played alongside musical greats like Manu Dibango, Angelique Kidjo and Hugh Masekela.
Tony Allen, Fela’s drummer, passes on with his beats
…as music stakeholders pay respect to the afrobeat co-founder
Amid the lockdown, the global music community, particularly the Nigerian music industry and fans are mourning the demise of Tony Oladipo Allen who died on April 30, 2020 in Paris, France.
Allen, who died of heart attack, was the greatest drummer that ever lived in the world, and most importantly, the co-founder of afrobeat music genre with Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late afrobeat music legend.
Born in Lagos in 1940, Allen, an ace drummer, composer and songwriter, would have been 80 years this July. He met Fela in 1964, and they went on to record dozens of albums in Africa ’70, including Gentleman and Zombie.
As the drummer and musical director of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s band Africa ’70 from 1968 to 1979, Allen was one of the primary co-founders of the genre of afrobeat music and Fela once stated that, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat”. He has also been described by Brian Eno, a music icon, as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.
Aside being the inventor of the rhythms that underpinned Afrobeat, Allen recorded more than 30 albums with Fela and Africa ’70, as well as, three solo recordings: Jealousy (’75), Progress (’77), No Accommodation For Lagos (’79) before leaving Africa ’70 in 1979 in search of his own sound. In 1980, he formed No Discrimination, his own group. He recorded and performing in Lagos until emigrating to London in 1984, then later moved to Paris where lived until his death on Thursday April 30, 2020.
Last December, Allen was in Nigeria for three weeks, and hosted live performances for his forthcoming 80th birthday anniversary in July 2020.
Speaking on the demise of Allen, Benson Idonije, ace broadcaster, music critic and first band manager of Fela Kuti, noted that Allen was the leading Afrobeat drummer with unmatched dexterity, and that with his death, that phenomenon has disappeared.
“Tony Allen was the pioneering rhythm maker for Afroabeats as the ace drummer of Fela’s band. While Fela Kuti was known as the reference point in Afroabeats, Allen created the rhythm and rhythm plays a very important part in Afroabeats”, Idonije said.
According to the former band manager of Fela Kuti, all the people Allen had influenced with his drumming skills will miss him, while the music world would miss he contributions to quality rhythm and music.
In his tribute to the late legend, Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli, legendary Nigerian musician, former president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) and old associate of Allen, said, “Tony Allen was a great human being, a good musician, very helpful and wonderful friend. We will miss a five-star drummer who was out there in the world making Nigeria proud. He was professional and not like the jokers we have today”.
Tee Mac recalled his last encounter with Allen on December 26, 2019 when he performed alongside Allen in his pre-birthday party show in Lagos.
“He was in Nigeria last year for three weeks to celebrate his forthcoming 80th birthday, I performed with him as a friend and that was the last time I saw him. It was a reunion and great fun for both of us”, Tee Mac said.
Tee Mac further described Allen, who had been his friend since 1970, and also worked for his band for a year when he left Fela in 1983, as “a five-class human being, and a great musician”.
Also, in his tribute, Ayo Sadare, CEO, Inspiro Productions and organiser of Lagos Jazz Festival, noted that Nigeria and the world has lost an authentic music icon of the afrobeat genre, an influential cultural and musical ambassador in Tony Allen.
The CEO of Inspiro Productions, who partnered with Zome International & Metroventures to organise a tribute concert on December 29, 2019 in the honor of Tony Allen at Reserve Lounge, Restaurant & Bar in Victoria Island Lagos, described Allen as a fantastic soul. “Allen was a legend who was active with a career that spanned over six decades and was relevant on the global jazz scene right till his recent passing having just released a posthumous album with another African Jazz Legend Hugh Masekela on Nick Gold’s world circuit records”, Inspiro Productions CEO said.
Speaking on the tribute concert, Sadare said, it was a resounding success. “Uncle Tony was elated. He was happy to be back among his people and celebrated like that. He announced to the crowd that he wanted to do this more often. We planned to bring his to the Lagos International Jazz Festival 2020, which which we dedicated to him, Victor Olaiya, & Manu Dibango.”, Sadare further said.
For Gboyega Adelaja, a veteran musician and contemporary of Allen, a whole book would not be enough to talk about Tony Allen. His greatest achievements, according to Adelaja, are found in his profound contributions towards Fela’s afrobeat, which has now become a music genre and, of course, his own personal development and success as one of the greatest drummers ever.
“Allen is a straightforward person who never exploited no one. We are going to miss Tony Allen tremendously, first as a great drummer and artiste and as a very humane person who got along with everyone that cherished dignity and good character. Rest in Peace Tony Allen”, Adelaja said.
Allen is among African music legends that died in Paris in recent time. It would be recalled that Manu Dibango, a Cameroonian music legend also died in Paris on March 24, 2020 at 86 years after catching coronavirus.
Tony Allen, legendary drummer and Afrobeat co-founder, dies aged 79
The Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who is credited with creating Afrobeat along with his old bandmate Fela Kuti, died suddenly at the age of 79 in Paris on Thursday, his manager said. “We don’t know the exact cause of death,” Eric Trosset said, adding it was not linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
“He was in great shape,” said Trosset. “It was quite sudden. I spoke to him at 1pm then two hours later he was sick and taken to Pompidou hospital, where he died.”
Allen was the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s band, Africa ’70, in the 60s and 70s. During that time the pair created Afrobeat, combining west African musical styles such as highlife and fuji music with US jazz and funk. Afrobeat went on to become one of the totemic genres of 20th-century African music.
Over Allen’s thrilling beat, Kuti laid out his revolutionary and pan-African message, which led him to become one of the abiding icons of the struggle for freedom across the continent. “Few people have the kind of communication that Fela and I had when we played music,” Allen said.
Allen and Kuti recorded about 40 albums as Africa ’70, before parting ways after a mythic, 26-year collaboration, with Allen citing Kuti’s disorganisation and debts to him as the reason for his departure. Such was the hole that Allen left in his band, Kuti required several drummers to replace him.
Of his singular style, Allen said: “I try to make my drums sing and turn them into an orchestra. I don’t bash my drums. Instead of bashing, I caress. If you caress your wife, you’ll get good things from your wife; if you beat her, up I’m sure she’ll be your enemy.”
Artists including Major Lazer, Gilles Peterson and Flea have paid tribute to Allen on Twitter.
Born in Lagos in 1940, Allen taught himself to play drums at the age of 18, drawing inspiration from the US jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, as well as contemporary African music. He has attributed his versatility to the need to make a living as a jobbing musician in Lagos in the early 60s. “Latin American, African horns, jazz, highlife … you had to be able to play it all because in the club they asked for it,” he said.
In 1969, touring the US for the first time with Kuti, a meeting with west coast jazz drummer Frank Butler inspired him to practise every morning on pillows, making his sticks bounce off them while he was rolling. “It adds flexibility,” he said. “Very effective. Effortless – that’s what I tried to catch from [Butler].” As part of Kuti’s band, he would sometimes drum for six hours without a break.
The British musician and producer Brian Eno has called Allen “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived”.
In 1984, Allen moved to London, and by the turn of the millennium had settled in Paris. In the 2000s, he added dub and electronica to his solo output – sometimes to the ire of Afrobeat purists – and became an in-demand collaborator for a younger generation of musicians, among them Jarvis Cocker, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sébastien Tellier.
On Blur’s 2000 song Music Is My Radar, Damon Albarn sang: “Tony Allen really got me dancing.” The pair would begin regular collaborations soon after. Allen sometimes participated in Albarn’s Africa Express residencies on the continent. He was the drummer in the supergroup, the Good, the Bad & the Queen, also featuring Clash bassist Paul Simonon, which released albums in 2007 and 2018. In 2008, Allen, Albarn and Flea formed the supergroup Rocket Juice and the Moon.
The Good, the Bad and the Queen: Nineteen Seventeen – video
Allen was dismissive, however, of a wave of Afrobeat-inspired indie bands such as Vampire Weekend that emerged at the end of the 2000s. “They write the basslines and the horns … but what about the drums? The drummer comes and doesn’t know what to play, because that is the bit with the discipline. He will play what he knows, which doesn’t fit the music.”
His most recent album was Rejoice, a collaboration with Hugh Masekela. The pair met in Nigeria in the 70s, when Allen was playing with Kuti.
This year he planned to work on what he described as a “travel album”, playing with young musicians in Nigeria, London, Paris and the US, “because I want to take care of youngsters – they have messages and I want to bring them on my beat,” he told the Guardian.
Allen, who described himself as a “simple, gentle guy”, lived in the Paris suburb Courbevoie.
‘His drums were singing, you know?’ Tony Allen remembered by his collaborators
Angélique Kidjo, Jeff Mills, Sébastien Tellier and more remember the late drummer: his humility, his brilliance, and his awesome sportswear
My dad used to play Fela Kuti records to me – some of my earliest musical memories are those records playing in the car. Later on I wondered who played the drums: oh, it’s this guy Tony Allen. He became my superstar.
It was the sound of Nigeria in a rhythm. It’s that undeniable groove that makes you want to dance, and that’s what I think and feel when I’m around Nigerians. It’s an energy, it’s a force; it’s not aggressive but it’s not tame. When a Nigerian’s in the room, you know a Nigerian’s in the room, and that’s how I feel about Tony’s playing: once he lays that beat on a Fela track it’s here to stay for the next half an hour.
Tony said he’d heard good things about me, and asked when was I gonna come and see him. I said: “Any time!” Like an ignorant Londoner I just assumed he lived in London, only to find out he lives in Paris. One of my friends told me you can get the Megabus there – say no more. I got it at 11pm, arriving in Paris at 6am. I would walk around Paris aimlessly for hours, and then I’d have a drum lesson with him in the afternoon. But it was more than a lesson: we would sit down, hang out, eat. He was fun, he had a youthful buzz about him. He was grateful for life. It was like hanging out with an old uncle. He was awfully grumpy in the mornings, but by the evening he was great.
He laughed when I was playing and said: “Why is everything so aggressive?” I was like: “What do you mean? It’s the drums, man, that’s what they’re for!” So for the first few lessons we worked on playing Fela Kuti beats really quietly together, really trying to get inside all the things about music that make a drum beat powerful, apart from sheer force.
Another thing I got from him is how many ways there are to make people dance. Are you going to lay the most simple beat to keep a platform for everyone else, or something more complicated? I got all that from him. Whether I’m playing with Jorja Smith or Ezra Collective, you’ll always hear something I can directly point towards and say: I learned that from Tony Allen. He’s the biggest musical influence on my playing, without a doubt.
Questlove, Chris Dave, Moses Boyd – these are all people I know are directly influenced by Tony too, but none of us can make a beat sit down and groove like he did. It’s so weird, because it’s not even that hard. You’ll look at the notes, what he’s doing, and you’re like: right, I can play everything in the right place. But when he does it, it just sounds better. Like when a really great narrator reads a sentence, it just has an authority to it that you couldn’t give, even if you can read the same sentence. He had a special gift.
I’ve known Tony since the late 80s. I had never met someone so positive, it was crazy. With Tony, it’s always about what can make the music beautiful, what can bring music to people’s hearts, what can make them dance. He never bitched about anything, never blamed anyone for anything.
He stayed as long as he could with the oppression in Nigeria with Fela. For his own sake, he had to leave to have a career. But was really grateful of the experience of being at the forefront, at the roots of Afrobeat. With Fela’s band, the horns, the singing, everybody can go wherever they want, because they know when they come back, they know there’s something holding them: Tony. He completely changed the way of playing drums: instead of hitting them hard, he put the percussionist’s role into the drums. The cowbell is always the driver of Afrobeat, and that’s why he plays so laid back. I’m looking at him, like: “You don’t even sweat. I’m singing and sweating – come on Tony, man, don’t rub it in, sweat a little bit!” But he said: “No, I never sweat.”
Remain in Light by Talking Heads was influenced by Fela’s album Afrodisiac, so when I covered it, the whole thing was about bringing rock’n’roll back to Africa. I wanted to pay tribute to the courage of Talking Heads by not copying Afrodisiac but understanding the trance induced by the drums from west Africa. So I said to Tony: “Let’s bring it back home.” We worked together again on Celia, my album of Celia Cruz songs, and afterwards Tony said: “Now we have to do our own project together.” I said: “I would love that, but we should add Manu Dibango and do a killer album.” And here we are, we didn’t have a chance to start working [Dibango died in March]. This news is beginning to feel painful and heavy to carry – I’m a little bit sore right now.
In a music business that is really dominated by men, it’s very hard to find a real gentleman. Manu Dibango is one, Tony Allen is one, and Hugh Masekela. The woman and person that I am, they respect it, before even respecting the artist that I am, and that is something that I derive my strength from. It’s very hard when you’re a woman in this business, and on top of that you’re an African woman, you’re black? God help you. And so to have such strong men who look at you and say: “What are you afraid of? Go for it, we’ll be here”? I’m flying high.
Tony didn’t speak much. He listened, and he had that smile: I’m sitting at my drums, and I’m in heaven. He would then look at me, and say: “Are you ready?” And he hit and I followed. You look at his hands, and his whole body – he’s like a painter, a storyteller, he’s just building everything around him. And you think, OK, this house is sturdy, I’m going to sit in it and do whatever I have to do.
When I was doing the album Eve, I went back to Benin and cut some tracks with drummers there, and as soon as you say Tony Allen, they go: “Oh my God, it’s because of him that I’m doing drums.” In the new generation of Afrobeats that’s coming from Africa, Tony is at the centre of it – he allows the youth today to cut and paste, do whatever they want to do with that rhythm. Afrobeats is also proof of the back and forth of music that left Africa to go to Europe and come back. It’s a constant exchange, it’s non-stop – trying to stop it is like trying to fight immigration, it’s impossible. And Tony is at the epicentre of it. He’s the foundation of the house.
Aged 25, I was playing a role in a movie by Quentin Dupieux, aka Mr Oizo. At night, the sound engineer would play a lot of Fela Kuti: super involving, a real discovery for me, and I was totally fascinated by the drums. Six months later, I was in Paris talking with friends and I said: “Oh la la, my favourite drummer is the drummer of Fela.” Someone said: “You know his name is Tony Allen? And he lives in Paris, in a very strange place – La Défense.” Tony Allen is living in the business centre of Paris?! OK – I will call him for my new song.
This was La Ritournelle, a very important song for me. I already had the chords, the melody, and I was looking for a drummer. Tony asked for the music before he came in the studio, so he listened a lot to the piano. He was working a lot, but not playing – he was thinking about the music. Tony was a very intellectual guy. And at one point, boom, he’s ready. I need maybe 15 or 20 takes to be happy, but Tony was a one-take guy. Maybe two, to be nice.
I kept the entire take, I didn’t do an edit of it. You can put the instruments in the computer and edit everything, but with Tony it was impossible to do that – the drums are too complicated. It’s like a big river. It’s a very human style of drumming, a lot of feelings, with a real story inside, and so if you edit it, you destroy the story.
Before Tony, La Ritournelle was good, I liked the chords. But when Tony played, it was really magic. He chose to start the ride cymbal when the singing starts – you have maybe six minutes with the hi-hat, and when I sing, he moves to the ride. It gave a magical touch to the song, it was a brilliant idea. This guy was really a genius of drums. It’s impossible to explain where the snare and kick is – it’s like a fantastic salad, full of different little parts.
He also brought a very good ambience to the studio – of international cool. Tony always wore a good outfit, super good sportswear. He was like a fantastic grandpa, kind of fragile but intense, and drinking a lot, smoking a lot. Like – a lot. The guy was always with a cloud of smoke around him. He was very discreet; he never told me: “You know I played with Fela Kuti, you know I invented Afrobeat?” Mega humble, super nice, a high level of coolness. The outfits, the way he talks, the eyes: someone very cool and very intelligent. Small, polite, but with a huge aura.
It was almost impossible to play this music on stage because I couldn’t find any drummer who could play the Tony parts. He was an old man, and it wasn’t really possible to do a tour like mine. So I always ask the new drummer: “Yeah, could you play La Ritournelle exactly like Tony?” And it was just impossible. It’s a very mysterious way to play drums. I guess it’s because he learned to play drums by himself, he didn’t take lessons, so he created another way to play.
Drummers like him are why guys decided to make drum machines, because the beats were so complex. Tony’s music had a certain type of flow and rhythm that is like a piece of gold for a DJ: it would take a person to a higher level, and it didn’t matter who you were or what you liked or where you were from, it had a very universal effect.
My manager told me that Tony Allen had rented out a studio in Paris and was inviting artists to come in and just jam. It was a very simple, brief meeting – he didn’t say much, we talked for a little bit, and then we set up and we started to play. And then we got into long conversations about everything – life and music.
We toured together as a duo and there were no rehearsals – we just took to the stage and played what we felt. The set list was “spontaneity”, and to me, that’s the highest form of communicating through music. We talked about politics or something up until the second that we took the stage, and then when we played together, we were emphasising those thoughts because they were still in our heads.
He was a very kind person. He always liked to tell you things he’s learned in the past, so that you don’t make the same mistake. One of the last conversations we had, I asked him if life, or this world, was as crazy then as it was now, and he said: “Yeah, it was always crazy.” That gave me a little bit of reassurance that we’re not experiencing anything unusual.
I asked him: “This way you’re playing the snare, where did that come from?” And he said that when he was growing up in Lagos, in one given day you’re going to speak four or five different languages. That carried over into the nightlife – the snare was speaking these multiple languages, and he taught me that you are never quite sure who the music is speaking to, so speak to everyone. He told me someone once asked him: “Where’s the one [the lead beat]?” Because it’s difficult to see where the rhythm starts. He explained that the one is everywhere, and it really depends on the listeners, where they come in and where they leave. So he was always showing me things, and teaching. We would have eye contact during our performances, and he would let me know if something was interesting or not.
After the first few performances, I went home, went to a music store and bought as much percussion as I could – as an electronic musician I was programming machines to the point where I never really used my hands. What I was really looking for was something I had in my own character, and I never would have realised that had I not listened to him. When it comes to showing a higher level of rhythm, and approaching that in a very organic way, I don’t think there’s anyone that I will meet that will show me as much as he did.
I asked him to come and play on my 2003 album Love Trap. With my previous album, Salt Rain, I had explored an axis of Europe, India and Africa, and this was an extension of that – we managed to find a musical space that was big enough to house all of those different elements, and I think Tony was proud of achieving that. He knew a lot about music, more than just groove. Sometimes you would hear him playing at soundcheck and you’d feel this immense depth and weight, almost like it’s been going on forever. He once said to me, my drumming is never-ending, and that’s the feeling you got from him.
He was very easy to play with – he didn’t have an ego. He wore his legend quite lightly, and was kind and charming. We share a birthday, and we would phone each other up each year for the last 15 years. When he came to London he would come and visit us, and play you his new music, and it was like … you know how teenagers are when they’ve got a new demo? He had that childlike demeanour. He was always so enthusiastic about life and music, he had a real zest for living.
Not many drummers have redefined drum language. It’s kind of like what J Dilla did for drummers – even though he wasn’t a drummer, what he did with the MPC [sampler] changed the way drummers played. Tony is one of those innovators, like Elvin Jones, like Tony Williams – you can’t come up after Tony and not be influenced by what his contribution to the drums is. He is almost in a world of his own.
I first met him in 2016 and ever since I’d always run into him hanging or playing with someone. He was a lot of fun, and he had a lot of time for musicians. He was this funky, youthful 79-year-old. He became very uncle-like, and loved a good time, always had some whisky or weed.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet and talk with a lot of the masters, like Roy Hargrove, Roy Haynes, James Moody, Jimmy Heath – they all had the same youthful inquisitiveness. Tony too, it felt like he was fresh and ready to take on whatever the show was. Not everyone’s blessed like that, some people get stuck in their thing, and that’s cool – they like to do what they do. But Tony always seemed wide open.
In the mid-80s, I used to DJ at Electric Ballroom in Camden on a Friday night. Upstairs was what they called the jazz room, where all the dancers would dance off and battle. Two Fela Kuti tracks that Tony Allen played on, Roforofo Fight and Shakara, were two of the most essential tracks that I had. Not only were they incredible, but they were also long, and allowed for a serious battle to ensue.
From Fatboy Slim playing Roforofo Fight at Glastonbury to Q-Tip playing it at Output to Louie Vega playing it in Tokyo, any DJ playing any kind of music, whether it’s hip-hop, house or disco, will have been saved at least once by a Tony Allen track. Whenever I saw him, I felt like I should pay him a percentage of my fee. The songs were generally quite long, so they always gave you enough time to get your head together – if you’re slightly nervous and need to settle into the zone, start with a Fela track. Or if you need a toilet break.
His music worked at 90bpm as well as it worked at 140bpm, that was the other magic about it. Even the slower stuff – Water No Get Enemy, Fear Not for Man – is brutally powerful in the same way roots reggae is, or heavy dubstep by Mala. It was almost like he created a beat that was ahead of the drum machine, it was so constant. And if you’re used to dancing on the fourth beat, you can fall into a four within his beat, but if you want to dance to the offbeat, you can find that too. There’s several different rhythms to latch on to, depending on what you like. And that’s really powerful – he’s managed to incorporate the swing and the hypnotic, two very different areas. You really have to mess up, or the crowd has to really suck, if they don’t dance to Tony Allen records.
Tony Allen marked all of my childhood – I used to dance a lot to his Afrobeat music. It was one of my dreams to collaborate with him and I finally realised it: he gifted me with his magic touch on my last album, Mogoya, playing drums on the tracks Yere Faga and Fadjamou. He is one of the most legendary musicians of all time because he knew how to play and adapt himself to all genres of music. He was a kind, generous and smart man. You marked your era, my brother. You will remain forever in our memories – rest in peace.
Moritz von Oswald
I did a remix for him, and then got in touch with him to give me a good backbeat for the Moritz von Oswald Trio I had formed. I’m a drummer myself, and Tony was like somebody from another world. How he kept the beat, how steady it was, it was so upfront and so precise – he was like a drum machine with soul. He was playing not only beats, but melodies – his drums were singing, you know?
In my studio, we set up my drum kit and he was so happy to sit behind it. It’s like I could feel his destination. It was so genius how he did his contributions to this steady electronic beat, how he loosened it up. He was never trying to put himself in the foreground, only support. And it was so complex. He was giving so much that it was almost enough on its own. I thought of making him the first person, changing the whole role of having a drummer. Usually a drummer is used as a backbeat, and I love that, but sometimes I was thinking to exchange these old conservative roles, and have him being the one that’s the main musician, and me add synth music to his playing. We never tried, but it would have been great to do it.
His playing was impossible to copy because no one in the world would be able to play it. And it was so light, as if it was floating – maybe the same as his personality! We had some beautiful times together. He was kind of a father figure, always embracing people, very humble. Kind of the same as he was behind the kit. We talked about our problems; we had some beautiful conversations about family and friendship. He was 75 when we played with him and we went to Japan, Australia, but he never argued or moaned. He was fighting through for playing, and you could see when you looked into his eyes that he really loved to play. He was a close friend – I felt like a son to him. And he was a genius, no?
Tony Allen, Pioneering Afrobeat Drummer, Dead at 79
Source: ROLLING STONE
“Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat,” Fela Kuti once said of legendary Africa 70 drummer.
Tony Allen, the pioneering drummer who helped define Afrobeat during his tenure with Fela Kuti, died on Thursday at the age of 79 (He would have been 80 in August). Rolling Stone has confirmed Allen’s death, yet a cause of death was not immediately available. Sahara Reporters first reported that Allen died in Paris.
“We don’t know the exact cause of death,” Allen’s manager Eric Trosset told France 24. “He was in great shape; it was quite sudden. I spoke to him at 1:00 pm, then two hours later he was sick and taken to Pompidou hospital where he died.”
As a member of Kuti’s band Africa 70, Allen helped revolutionize the art of drumming, simultaneously anchoring and propelling classic albums like 1973’s Gentleman, 1975’s Expensive Shit, and the Afrobeat legend’s most enduring work, 1976’s Zombie. Each release depended on Allen’s slippery, ferocious, polyrhythmic grooves. “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat,” Kuti once said. Damon Albarn and Brian Eno were also famously enamored with Allen’s playing; Eno called him “one of the great musicians of the 20th century — and the 21st.”
“There was no band like the Africa 70,” Femi Kuti, Fela’s son, told Rolling Stone in 2017. “And there is no drummer like Tony Allen.”
Allen was born in Lagos, Nigeria; he didn’t pick up the sticks until his late teens. He studied the work of a variety of jazz drummers, from Art Blakey to Elvin Jones to Philly Joe Jones to Gene Krupa. Speaking with The Wire, Allen credited Max Roach with turning him on to the potential of the hi-hat, which he believed many of his peers were neglecting. Allen later met the drummer Frank Butler, who influenced him to practice drumming on pillows. “It adds flexibility,” he told The Guardian.
Allen also picked up a wide-ranging musical education on the club circuit in Nigeria. “Latin American, African horns, jazz, highlife… you had to be able to play it all, because in the club they asked for it,” Allen said. He played in an outfit dubbed the Cool Cats and then moved on to help better known highlife artists like Victor Olaiya.
Kuti initially met Allen in 1964. “The first thing he asked was, ‘are you the one who said that you are the best drummer in this country?’” Allen recalled. “I laughed and told him, ‘I never said so.’ He asked me if I could play jazz and I said yes. He asked me if I could take solos and I said yes again.”
Allen went on to serve as the drummer in Kuti’s band Koola Lobitos. Initially, listeners weren’t sure what to make of the group. “It was like a revolutionary music style coming to the country,” Allen explained. “They were used to the highlife thing… It was kind of strange for the people.”
After a visit to the United States in 1969, Allen and Kuti began to cement the endlessly copied sound of Afrobeat. This was full-band dance music, boosted by searing, intricate horn parts, scratchy, relentless guitar, and agitated, hyperactive bass lines. Like American funk, each instrument could function as a percussive engine, driving the song forward, but Afrobeat made more room for solos and inventive melodic digressions that sprawled out over 10, 12, or 17 minutes.
Allen was the whirlwind at the center of it all, producing a darting web of rhythm, invigorating but never overpowering, that entranced generations of musicians. “I was accustomed to a hard and rigid sort of drive in the drums,” Meshell Ndegeocello said in 2017. “Hearing Tony Allen really opened my mind up to fluidity and the understanding of agility within the pulse.”
Eno bought a Kuti album on a whim in a London record shop in the early Seventies. “I think I liked the cover, and I think I liked the fact that the band had so many members,” he told The Vinyl Factoryin 2014. “It changed my whole feeling about what music could be… when I first met Talking Heads and we were talking about working together, I played [Kuti’s 1973 album Afrodisiac] for them and said: This is the music of the future.”
“I love the density of the weave between the players,” Eno added. “I love the relationship of discipline and freedom shown in this. It’s not jamming in the do-whatever-you-like sense. But it’s not constrained parts in the orchestral sense either.”
Allen and Kuti were a prolific and indefatigable team for over a decade. Kuti released multiple albums a year with ease. He was also a tireless performer. “We’d play six hours a night, four days of the week with Fela,” Allen told Clash. “That’s what the people want.”
Kuti quickly became known for his blunt condemnations of government corruption and ineptitude. “What [Fela] was challenging, he was right,” Allen said in 2016. “But it was too direct and that’s why he got all this shit. There were too many arrests, too many bombardments. You’re a musician — why do you leave yourself to be beaten up all the time like that?” Government retaliations against Kuti became increasingly fierce, and Allen decided to strike out on his own in 1978.
In addition to his work with Kuti, Allen was known for his collaborations with Albarn: Allen was a member of The Good, The Bad and the Queen alongside Albarn, the Clash’s Paul Simonon, and the Verve’s Simon Tong. That band releasing a pair of albums, a self-titled 2007 LP and 2018’s Merrie Land. Allen, Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea — under the moniker Rocket Juice & The Moon — also released a collaborative album in 2012.
“The greatest drummer on Earth has left us,” Flea wrote on Instagram. “What a wildman, with a massive, kind and free heart and the deepest one-of-a-kind groove. Fela Kuti did not invent afrobeat, Fela and Tony birthed it together. Without Tony Allen there is NO afrobeat.”
In recent years, Allen reconnected with his jazz roots, recording a tribute EP for his “hero” Art Blakey and teaming up with Jeff Mills for 2018’s Tomorrow Comes the Harvest. Earlier this year, Allen released Rejoice, a collaboration with late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
“Today, we’ve just lost the best drummer that has ever lived,” Mills said in a statement. “Rhythms and patterns so complex and on such a high level of communication, there are not words yet created to describe what he created. It was otherworldly. He was otherworldly! A master musician and a master thinker.”
While many listeners think drumming and clobbering a rhythm are synonymous, Allen never felt that way. “Some drummers don’t know what it means to play soft, it’s not in their book,” he said in 2016. “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 flowing like a river.”
Angeliq Kidjo, Eric Trosset, Shadare Pour Encomiums On Late Tony Allen
Ayoola Shadare, MD/CEO of Inspiro, has expressed shock over the death of Tony Allen.
The jazz festival organiser was the last promoter to bring the saxophonist to Lagos, Nigeria, last year, for the gig entitled No Shaking Homecoming Tribute Concert
He is among the few who has reacted to the death of the famous musician who also was with Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
“What I want to remember about him is our musical conversation, our laughter, our joy. They are gone, but they are not gone for me,” he told Doggone News Associated (DNA).
“His Nigerian manager based in the US, Kole Payne, facilitated the concert. The show was a resounding success. Uncle Tony was elated. He was happy to be back amongst his people and celebrated like that. He announced to the crowd that he wanted to do this more often. We planned to bring his to the Lagos International Jazz Festival 2020 which which we dedicates to him, Dr. Victor Olaiya, & Manu Dibango,” he added.
He described Allen as not just a great musician or drummer, but a great human being personally. “He had no airs about him and could collaborate with anyone and he did. “He was gentle, kind, generous, accommodating, approachable, smart and gifted. He was a good human being first and foremost.
“I am happy I was able to celebrate him here in Nigeria last December, but I am also pained because we had just really started to get to work together on projects for what we termed the Tony Allen Afrobeat Legacy Project. Afrobeat meets Afrobeats.
“We will miss him but his music lives on in our hearts.”
According to BBC News, the pioneering Nigerian drummer; a co-founder of the afrobeat musical genre, died in Paris on Thursday aged 79.
His manager, Eric Trosset, told NPR radio that he had died of a heart attack. AFP said his death was not linked to coronavirus.
Allen was the drummer and musical director of musician Fela Kuti’s famous band Africa ’70 in the 1960-70s.
Fela, as he was widely known, died in 1997. He once said that “without Tony Allen, there would be no afrobeat”.
Afrobeat combines elements of West Africa’s fuji music and highlife styles with American funk and jazz.
Other world stars who have paid their tributes, including, UK musician Brian Eno, described Allen as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”.
Trosset also led tributes in a Facebook post saying “your eyes saw what most couldn’t see… as you used to say: ‘There is no end’”.
Beninois singer Angelique Kidjo told the BBC’s Newsday programme that she had been hit hard by both Allen’s death and the passing of Cameroonian saxophone legend Manu Dibango in March.
By Aduloju Daniel & Agency Report
Tony Allen: the Afrobeat pioneer’s 10 finest recordings
From simmering dancefloor fillers to defiant resistance anthems, we pick the best of the legendary drummer’s tracks
Listen to a playlist of Ammar’s selections:
Roforofo Fight is the earliest cohesive expression of Tony Allen and saxophonist Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat sound: part Yoruba polyrhythm, part Nigerian highlife melody, part calypso swing, and all shuffling swagger. Allen and Kuti had been playing together for the best part of eight years at this point, mixing highlife and jazz, but a 1969 trip to the US proved pivotal, exposing Kuti to the radicalism of the Black Panther movement and leading to the formulation of his militant aesthetic Africa ‘70 band. On the title track of Kuti’s second album to be recorded after the trip, Allen takes centre stage with his undulating groove, slapping the snare on the jaunty offbeats to counter Kuti’s forceful diction. An enticing taste of things to come.
Afrobeat rhythms seem deceptively simple: a steadily paced, off-kilter shuffle that holds the beat without succumbing to the western convention of landing the snare on the third beat of the bar. Try to play an Allen line, though, and you soon realise how much ghosting and embellishment is going on below the surface – doubles splayed on the first note of a phrase, kick drums scattered throughout. And yet, the groove remains even when it feels like it might fall apart. Water No Get Enemy is the perfect example: a hip-swaying mid-tempo horn line sits atop Allen’s liquid shuffle while Kuti uses the amorphous imagery of water to outline methods of resistance to Nigeria’s reactionary government.
By the mid 70s, Kuti’s politics of resistance was reaching its peak. Zombie was its most forceful expression, Kuti’s lyrics characterising the violent Nigerian army as mindless zombies. You can feel the force of his frustration through his blistering saxophone as it meanders over the highlife guitar line, while Allen’s snappy, shaker-heavy rhythm is the ever-reliable foundation for Kuti’s social message. The song’s success in Nigeria was not without consequences, leading to a severe beating for Kuti, the torching of his studio and his elderly mother being thrown from a window and killed.
Kuti had a domineering relationship to his bandmates, demanding all recording royalties for himself despite Allen’s role as musical director. As the 70s wore on and the group’s popularity increased, so did the dissent in its ranks. By 1979, Allen had recorded three albums as bandleader and so decided to leave the ‘Africa 70, taking many of its members with him. The greatest recording of his new era is 1984’s Nepa – an attack on the notoriously unreliable Nigerian Electrical Power Authority. Here Allen continues Kuti’s lineage of playful socio-political criticism, this time updating the Afrobeat sound to include dub-inflected electronics and fusion funk. It would become representative of Allen’s all-encompassing musical appetite in the years to come.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen: The Good, the Bad & the Queen (The Good, the Bad & the Queen, 2007)
As the 90s continued and Allen was establishing himself as an architect of Afrobeat in his own right, especially in the wake of Kuti’s 1997 death, his own genre-eating journey was evolving further into electronics and collaboration. A longtime fan of the genre, Damon Albarn enlisted Allen for his supergroup, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, featuring the Clash’s Paul Simonon on bass and the Verve’s Simon Tong on guitar. The sprawling title track is the closest we see Allen to cutting loose behind the kit and producing an unabashed rock sound behind Tong’s voluminous closing solo – a testament to his energetic versatility.
Perhaps the strangest and least well-known of Allen’s collaborations is that with the techno producer Moritz von Oswald, who replaced his longtime drummer Vladislav Delay with Allen for his 2015 album Sounding Lines. Allen produces a truly remarkable sound: a warped and manipulated series of electronics. The opening track sees Allen superimpose an Afrobeat shuffle on to a wobbly dub that builds over 10 minutes to create a simmering, electro dancefloor odyssey.
Allen’s first love was always jazz and he referenced throughout his life the work of rhythmic mastermind Max Roach and explosive powerhouse Art Blakey as major influences. This 2017 Blue Note recording was a welcome opportunity for Allen to finally delve into those roots and lay down his own interpretations. Across its four tracks Allen tackles some of Blakey’s best-loved tunes, like a straight-eighths Moanin’, but his Afrobeat-inflected Night in Tunisia is a work of genius, transforming the horn line into a punchy, driving vamp.
Continuing his jazz explorations, Allen delivered his first album of original compositions as a bandleader for legendary jazz label Blue Note. The culmination of his decades of musical exploration, it interweaves metallic electronics with warm percussion, bright horn lines and that ever-present drum language. On Wolf Eats Wolf, Allen is comfortably experimental, putting a Synclavier to work over a highlife guitar line and Kuti-referencing horns to create an eminently danceable new jazz standard.
Never one to be pigeonholed, on 2018’s Tomorrow Comes the Harvest Allen paired up with techno wizard Jeff Mills to further the electronic experiments he had begun with Von Oswald. Largely formulated for modular live performances, the record has a wonderfully loose, improvisatory feel. It hits its stride on the propulsive Locked and Loaded as Allen’s shuffle dissipates into white noise beneath Mills’s distorting sub bass. Even in the grid-work of Mills’ techno, Allen manages to swing.
In 2010, Allen paired up with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, a longtime collaborator and giant of South African jazz. Rejoice was released a decade later, following Masekela’s death in 2018, and now stands as Allen’s last released recording. As its title indicates, the album is a sun-dappled, joyous listening experience celebrating both artists’ effortless ability to make us shake a leg. Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be The Same) plays as an homage to Kuti and it serves as a perfect reminder that although our musical greats ultimately pass on, their legacy lies in each note, ready and willing to be dusted off, played and reinterpreted all over again.
Tony Allen: Deep-thinking, funky old man
By Ayo Sonaiya
My upcoming documentary about the new “Afrobeats” genre cannot be complete without the influence of Afrobeat (without the S). I was going to interview Fela’s children, Femi and Seun for the project, and of course Tony Allen, as he is known and globally referred to as the “co-creator” of the original Afrobeat sound.
We had made contact with his Team last year and planned to interview him late December when next he is in Lagos. On the day of the interview, as myself and my crew arrived at the rehearsal studio, the first quick word by his Manager was not to make the interview about Fela, because apparently “he hates that shit!”. I said I had no intention of doing so, and what I was most interested in talking to him about was the double tap kickdrum technique that he is most famous for. The Manager smiled and said “then you will be alright”.
Tony Allen is what you’ll call a funky old man. Dressed casually in a polo shirt, jeans and a cap, plus full blacked out shades for effect as he smoked his joint while we tested sound. Mindful that he thought this was just another press interview about Fela, the first question I asked him when we started was about The Good The Bad and The Queen. His face lit up, adjusted himself in the low chair and we kicked off into what was not only a fantastic sparring session about African music evolution, but an insightful dive into old and new drums progression and yes, about Fela (he was the one that brought it up).
From everything I had heard previously about Tony Allen, what I found was a deep thinking old man who says what he means and means what he says, about everything from music to relationships, his present gigs, his future plans (which included possibly doing something with “the new guys in vogue” like Burna Boy). The Tony Allen I interviewed was funny, a little high too, but we enjoyed our conversation and even planned to meet up in Paris after I release the documentary, but I guess God knew that was not going to happen.
The Tony Allen I interviewed just months ago was fit, agile, technically sound and didn’t show any sign of any ailment, not to talk of death. The true Afrobeat community and indeed the new Afrobeats kids will feel his impact on both genres as the condolences and tributes flow in from around the world, and also from my documentary Afrobeats the Backstory coming out soon.
the greatest drummer alive… yes we said it
At the dawn of the nineteen nineties, towards the end of a life in which he personally helped re-route the trajectory of popular music two or three times, Miles Davis contemplated where music was heading next. Western musicians, he opined, would increasingly draw inspiration from trends emerging from the West Indies and Africa. Special citation was given to Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the little-known (in America, at least) bandleader who combined funk, jazz, sex, politics, religion and dark humor into a combustible stew he dubbed Afrobeat. This, Davis declared, was one of the musical genres of the future.
Twenty-three years later, Miles Davis’ future is our present. Fela has been dead for more than a decade and a half, but his legend and influence loom larger every year. For a new generation, the image of him stripped to the waist, arms shot skywards in a double Black Power salute rivals the radical chic iconography of Korda’s heroic portrait of Che Guevara. His catalog, once found only scarcely as bootleg cassettes and expensive import vinyl toted under the arms of the terminally hip, is now remastered and extensively reissued in a variety of mass-market formats. His life story has been immortalized in a long-running, Tony Award-winning Broadway show. His music has inspired enough tribute bands to populate a small weekend festival.
But for all its proliferation, is Afrobeat really moving forward into the future musically? Or are the legions of Fela-philes merely keeping it in a holding pattern, eternally reliving a Fela cultural moment from thirty years ago?
Tony Allen seems to think so.
“I want to look forward to the future,” Allen says. “I want to keep moving forward. I do everything I can to make sure that this music, Afrobeat, continues its evolution.”
Allen occupies a singular place in the Afrobeat pantheon. Like Miles Davis, he has changed the way in which people think about music by the sheer force of his artistry. As Fela’s drummer in various bands from 1964 till 1979, he had a front row view of Kuti’s own evolution from slick-suited post-bop jazzbo to Afro-firebrand, and he remains the one person who can make a legitimate claim to having co-created Afrobeat. His unique, super-polyrhythmic drum patterns giving a slinky backbone to Fela’s byzantine arrangements, Allen functioned more as co-pilot than as flight staff. Kuti, a notorious control freak, jealously guarded his personal vision from extraneous contributions and fined his musicians for the slightest deviation from the notation, but with Allen he opened them up for a more mutual collaboration.
Allen explains the workings of the partnership: “When Fela composes his tunes, he will write the parts for all the instruments and then he will come to me and ask, ‘Allenko, what can you add to this? What are you going to play here?’ And then I’d play different patterns until Fela finds one that grabs him and he will say ‘Yes, that’s it…hold on to that one.’”
“Without Tony Allen, there is no Afrobeat.”
Allen is proud of his contribution to the development of the genre, and quickly grows irritated when challenged by diehard Fela loyalists such as music critic and longtime Fela confidante Benson Idonije, who claims to have personally witnessed Kuti taking the drumsticks himself to instruct Allen of the rhythm he wanted played.
“Fela himself said, ‘Without Tony Allen, there is no Afrobeat,’” Allen says. “Have you heard Fela say that? If it’s true that Fela taught me how to play the Afrobeat drum pattern, why would he say that? ‘No Tony Allen, no Afrobeat.’
“It’s something he said many times, and it’s something I take very seriously. That’s why when I was playing with Fela, I could not afford to be sick for even a night! When I’m sick, no show! So why didn’t Fela go and play the drums himself?” Why didn’t he play the fucking drums himself, or put somebody else in there?”
Laughing, Allen spins into an anecdote to illustrate his key position in Fela’s musical organization, going all the way back to the Lagos jazz-highlife outfit Koola Lobitos in the mid-sixties.
“Several times, I told Fela “Go and get Remi, get Remi Kabaka to stand in for me, or John Bull [Okoh]” Allen reminisces, citing some of the prominent drum maestros of the day. “When I was having ulcer and the doctor told me that I have to chill out for two weeks… Listen. Koola Lobitos did not play, nothing. He couldn’t afford it! That’s when I told him to get Remi or John Bull because these were guys he had played with before. First night, when they did the first show at Kakadu Night Club, it was a disaster.
“Fela drove down to my house at one o’clock in the morning to drag me out of my sickbed and tell me that I have to come. I have to get on stage. I said, ‘What about Remi and John Bull?’ He said, ‘He can’t do it! He can’t!’ They fuck up his music! So it was then I knew that I could never afford not to be able to play, because when I can’t play, then Fela can’t play.”
“And then when Fela started having doubles, stand-ins for all the instrumentalists, I asked him, ‘Where’s my apprentice? Where’s my double?’ He said it’s impossible to find someone else to imitate my style! And you can see what happened when I left the band… what happened?”
(What happened was that after Allen’s exit in 1979 due to disputes over money and credit, the propulsive rhythmic fire of Fela’s music disappeared, replaced by a more downbeat, measured and languid tempo. Seemingly in recognition of the loss of the -beat that defined Afrobeat, Fela renounced the Afrobeat tag and rechristened his sound with the less exciting appellation “Classical African Music.”)
“If Fela was teaching me how to play the drums as people want to say, why didn’t he just teach someone else to play the same way after I was gone?” Allen concludes.
As much as Tony Allen passionately defends the legacy of his achievements, he professes a mild boredom with revisiting what he views as ancient history.
“I don’t like to talk to much about the past. That’s the reason why I wrote my book [Tony Allen: The Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, co-written with Michael Veal, Duke University Press] so that anybody can go and read about all that stuff. But for me, I am looking forward.”
His progressive stance extends even to the playing of Afrobeat, which he feels has become too conservative, too beholden to Fela’s unique voice and viewpoints.
“Afrobeat is not supposed to be played exactly like Fela played it,” Allen says. “It is a music and a movement. Anybody can play it the way it moves them.”
“My idea of my music is me playing live my hands and my feet moving to create the patterns.”
Over the last fifteen years, Allen has found himself moved to record new permutations of Afrobeat with electronic music producers, with rock icons like Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon, with French pop eccentric Sebastien Tellier, with reggae guitar legend Ernest Ranglin and neo-funkster Amp Fiddler and a host of other eccentric artists. The challenge that continues to motivate him is to find new contexts into which to insert his Afrobeat drum patterns, and never looking backwards.
“One thing I can tell you,” Allen says, “I’ve never tried to touch any track of what I played with Fela, or to play cover songs. The only time I’ve done that is when I’ve played with these young guys, these new Afrobeat bands that have invited me to sit in with them. They like to play a lot of Fela’s music, and when they play it, I play it with them. But I never play that old stuff on my own, in my own band.”
But there are still some frontiers Allen is not willing to cross: “I have no interest in drum programming,” he says. “My idea of my music is me playing live my hands and my feet moving to create the patterns. I don’t buy the programming business; I think it’s for amateurs. The beat sounds too clean, you know?”
Allen remains optimistic about the future of the music he helped bring into existence and is delighted to see the number of bands playing Afrobeat multiplying worldwide. “It’s great that so many of them are playing Afrobeat, but it’s still not enough because we can still count them. When we can’t count the number of bands that play Afrobeat in the world, then we will know that Afrobeat is truly established.”
Ironically, Allen’s optimism reaches its limit when the subject comes to Afrobeat’s future in the land of its birth.
“Forget about Nigeria!” he barks. “Please don’t even talk about Nigeria at all when it comes to Afrobeat! When we talked about Afrobeat and Nigeria, it came from there, but it’s gone now. They don’t have it. And they won’t have it. Because they don’t want to have it. When Nigeria embraces Afrobeat, when they’ll have it again… is when it is imported back from other parts of the world that have embraced it.”
“But all I can say is that I am trying my best to make sure that this music stays.”
.. He was the BEAT in AFROBEAT
— Tam Fiofori
Fela’s AfroBEAT is a balanced collaboration between Fela the genius arranger-cum-composer and Tony Allen the master trap drummer who marshalled and anchored the rhythms provided by Henry Koffi’s three-membrane drums, the conga drum, the pronounced 4/4 rhythm of the wood clave, the shekere, the bass guitar, the rhythm guitar and multiple horn riffs to achieve THE BEAT or the pulse which essentially was the heartbeat of Fela’s Afro-BEAT music!
To better understand why these two musical giants were able to achieve this eureka of the Afrobeat-pulse-rhythm-sound, it is essential to x-ray their musical backgrounds and ambitions.
Fela, an extremely talented and well-trained-and-versed musician, had dabbled with Highlife-Jazz and, as a keen researcher and cultural sponge, was well aware of textural rhythms of gongs as in Urhobo and Yoruba folk music, as well as the rhythmic innovations Rex Lawson introduced into Highlife music with the use of two guitars and the stand-out indigenous three-membrane drum -with its roots in Rivers state- that traditionally directed and choreographed the movements and dancing steps of masquerades.
Tony Allen is an exceptional and naturally gifted trap drummer, with the extraordinary ability as from the sixties to be a pulse-4/4 jazz drummer; a very rare breed of jazz drummer, capable in Sun Ra’s words, of achieving the distinctive “shuffle beat,” in jazz. Hence Fela as the CEO of the music and Tony Allen as the Executive Director of rhythms were able to create the novel, now global, musical genre of AFROBEAT.
Fela’s enormous contribution to world contemporary popular music is best and fully appreciated listening to his recordings. For me, the anthem of Fela’s AFROBEAT is the proverbial tune Je nwi temi [Let me say my own/Make I talk my own], on his London 1971 live-studio recording featuring his friend and ‘great white hope’ of pop-jazz drumming Ginger Baker in addition to Tony Allen.
This album is Fela’s first master class in rhythms, rhythmic textures and flavours; membrane drums, gongs/cow bells, claves, shekere. Musical genius and rascal that he was, Fela in one fell swoop on this album, demystified and debunked Ginger Baker’s status as the world’s top pop-jazz drummer and firmly established [for the record] Tony Allen as the new king.
Fifty years on, in March 2020, Tony Allen recalled the experience. “I just let him play his way. I steadied the music, so he could do anything he wanted. If I’m not there, Ginger Baker cannot play with Fela. If it’s Ginger Baker alone backing Fela’s music, it won’t work.” Straight from the innovator and master Afrobeat trap-drummer himself.
Allen joined Fela’s Koola Lobitos band [the Highlife-Jazz phase] in the mid-60s and, was a founding member in 1969, as musical director, of Fela’s legendary Africa ’70 band that evolved the unique music genre of Afrobeat. He quit in 1978.
‘He Helped Shape Afrobeat”
“No doubt Tony Allen helped shape Afrobeat from Koola Lobitos era so did all the other musicians that played with Fela at that time. Fela was the bandleader that brought them all together, he was in command, he studied music and created all the melodies, harmonies and arrangements which to me is the heart of the music, he didn’t write drum patterns for Tony Allen neither did he write solos for Igo Chico and the others but 90% of the music was Fela’s ideology and training. In simple terms Tony Allen also helped shape Afrobeat, infact it wasn’t called Afrobeat initially when songs like Lagos Baby, Abiara, Ye Se, Alagbara etc were composed, Afrobeat surfaced after Fela returned from the US and was transformed, I believe the first Afrobeat tune was Jeun Koku.
“Tony Allen played a significant role in Afrobeat drumming no doubt but when he left the band a few younger drummers worked with Fela, the inherent Afrobeat music didn’t change then but the drumming changed and was more syncopated, whichever way you want to look at it soldier go soldier come Fela remained on top of his creation till the very end. He composed the lyrics, horns parts and harmonies and all the dynamics of what today is a worldwide phenomenon called Afrobeat, it’s not easy at all to have been able to do that it took a well-educated disciplined musician and transformed social reformer to sustain that move then and beyond. Fela is truly legendary not by mistake but by divine design. It will take a seriously adventurous mind to match that feat. Believe me.”
With due respect to Tony Allen who until his death was a very good friend and brother, he was not a co-author of the Afrobeat genre of music. He was the Koola Lobitos drummer just like Henry Kofi was the congarist and the other instrumentalist in the band, they all played strictly under the musical arrangement of Fela Ransome Kuti then. It was only the different solos Fela allowed each member to play on different tracks that gave them the freedom of expression. Fela unilaterally wrote all the patterns including drums and congas. Baba Ani is a living witness and should be asked the same question or better still asked to comment on the issue. Tony Allen no doubt a smart drummer quickly embraced the patterns Fela exposed him to. Tony Allen played differently when he was with Victor Olaiya’s Cool Cats. Fela came into the scene and from the very beginning his music was different from everyone else, though identified as highlife but to the ears of conosseurs he was playing highlife jazz until he returned from the US and dropped Jeun Koku the 1st Afrobeat sound. Prior to that Fela’s tunes like Abiara, Yese, Wa Dele, Ajo, Omuti, etc were all Highlife but jazzified with horns, baselines, and guitar works. We salute today our late brethren Tony Allen for his loyalty and contributions to Fela’s Afrobeat genre of music. He later after 1978 when he left Fela’s band and after Fela’s death in 1997 started to benefit from that loyalty due to the great following Fela’s Afrobeat music had amassed. May Tony Allen’s Soul Rest in Perfect Peace. Amen
—– Gboyega Adelaja, pianist, music producer
“Percussive Power behind Afrobeat”
Fela undoubtedly was the enigmatic genius, however Tony Allen was the percussive power behind the Afro that gave the world the scintillatingly-smooth beat. He was exactly to Afrobeat what Clyde Stubblefield was to Funk. Never altogether a power or a ferocious drummer in the mold of a Buddy Rich or Keith Moon, but what Allen lacked in power, he overcompensated in his signature “shower and hiss” style. He was more into hard rhythm- like an instinctive African drummer who goes about in the marketplace with a drum decorated with functioning miniature cymbals. And like the traveling drummer, he wanted his sound squeezed from everywhere!
Hard to explain his magnificence to a listener who lacks the temerity to immaculately sift sound from sound. He was the first drummer I noted with the frequent use of the hi-hats to keep the drums idle. A foot perpetually stayed on the hi-hats pedal. He surrounded his plates of drums with acoustic sounds like gongs, Ikengas and cowbell to fill up the sound space. He was laid back yet amazingly ‘multiple.’ He played as if the band featured more than a drummer. Sad for all the drummers that came after Tony upon his departure from the Africa 70 band. Never lacking talent, except the fact that none of them could deaden the stench of Allen’s humongous shit. The great Ginger Baker managed it in “Yeye Dey Smell” yet he couldn’t vanquish him altogether and that’s considering a fact that he- Ginger was a power drummer. Tony simply was the drummer of an utmost awkward timing. Cool as a gorgeous cat in dark glasses, in those days as he sat high up on his rhythm throne in the far, shadowy back. Dang I especially love me some Tony in Fela’s “Open And Close!” The man kept an amazing time on that track!
I watched a video of the drum battle between Tony and Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie (The world’s most recorded drummer) last year and I had a profound feeling Tony was about packing up. He was approaching his end. And about last week I had a discussion centered around him with a musically-inclined friend too. The feeling again awashed me, albeit procrastination is a clever thief- but not this time around. I had been ready with a tribute for about a year now. Therefore I wasn’t all too surprised when I heard the news yesterday.
— Odòlayé Bàá Waki Aremu