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Tony Allen: The master drummer who gave the beat to Afrobeat

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Wednesday, 6 May 2020 18:59

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian singer Tony Allen performs at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat
Nigerian singer Tony Allen performs at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, May 17, 2008. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

"Le sorcier du rythme" as Tony Allen came to be known in Paris, died aged 79 after suffering an aortic aneurysm at Georges Pompidou European hospital in the French capital on 30 April. His legacy worldwide is honoured as the man who put the beat in afrobeat.

It is getting near midnight on a Friday evening in the Nigerian capital in the late 1970s. Young Lagosians are trekking from Oju Elegba, at the heart of the city’s night club scene, towards the old Empire Hotel where the Africa 70 band is warming up.

As they walk towards Chief Kanu’s hotel, renamed the Afrika Shrine by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the sound of what seems like a hundred drummers floats down the street on sheets of thick humid air.

The_New_Afrika_Shrine
Afrika Shrine, Lagos , Nigeria/ Comradeayobami, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikicommons Media

The nearer you get, the more insistent the battery of sound becomes. Inside the hotel on the wooden stage on the other side of the garden is an orchestra of drums and percussion from across Africa – agogo, ashiko, bata drums, bass drums, bougarabou, cabasa, conga, ekwe, ikoro, kpanlogo, maraca, shekere, talking drum, udu.

Afrobeat is the future of music.

-Miles Davis

Centre stage is the conductor, wide-smiling and Buddha-like behind a well-worn jazz drum kit, each leg and each arm keeping its own strict time in four independent universes. It is the man to whom Fela Kuti gave his ultimate imprimatur – “without Tony Allen there would be no Afrobeat!”

“Best drummer that had ever lived”

The death of ‘le sorcier du rythme’ (wizard of rythmn) came just a month after the passing of his good friend and fellow emigré in Paris, Manu Dibango. This year of the pandemic has exacted a cruel toll among the world’s musicians.

READ MORE: Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango dies of coronavirus

Hommages flooded in from the nomenklatura of African, jazz and electronic music. Brian Eno’s accolade that “Tony Allen was perhaps the best drummer that had ever lived” captured the groove.

Allen’s African roots helped him liberate the drums from a time-keeping function, way beyond the steady ride-cymbal pattern of conventional jazz drumming or the clapping snare drum backbeat of most rock players.

I developed the drumming concept for Afrobeat from everything that I heard while growing up.

-Tony Allen

His innovations and intuitions were lauded by musicians across the world. The young man who inculcated the spirit and technique of virtuosos such as Max Roach  and Art Blakey then played with the jazz greats of his own generation such as Archie Shepp and Randy Weston  .

It was Miles Davis who said, after listening to Fela and Tony Allen, that “Afrobeat is the future of music.”

In that and much else, Davis was prescient. Afrobeat has encircled the globe, inspiring adherents in cities from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Moscow alongside established colonies of exponents in Paris, New York and London.

And now it’s full circle back to Nigeria where the Afrobeat torch is carried by radical successors such as Burna Boy, as well as Fela’s sons Femi and Seun.

Afrobeat revolution

The Afrobeat revolution started in Lagos at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1963 when Tony Allen met Fela Kuti. Allen was working as studio engineer at the time; Kuti had been hired as a disc jockey with his own jazz request programme.

Both men were spending the best hours of their lives running from night clubs to hotel bars searching for gigs with the latest highlife and jazz bands. Allen found a regular slot with highlife supremo Adeolu Akinsanya’s Western Toppers Band that had a residency at Chief Ladebu’s Western Hotel in Mushin, in mainland Lagos.

As a side gig, Allen was drumming with Sir Victor Olaiya, another highlife legend of the era.

After his return from London in 1963, Fela formed his own jazz quintet which had won a small but ardent following, much to the irritation of the rival Jazz Preachers. But the chances of making a living out of such music seemed remote.

A multi-instrumentalist, Fela was majoring on the trumpet and would compose on the piano. He wanted to create a new sound, melding the rhythmic power of African music with jazz instruments and the immediacy of rhythm and blues. In Allen, he found the musician who would put the beat into Afrobeat.

Allen told his biographer Michael Veal, a Harvard musicologist: “I developed the drumming concept for Afrobeat from everything that I heard while growing up. There was highlife, local Yoruba music like apala and sakara, there was jazz and western popular music.”

The eldest son of Jones Alabi Allen, a car mechanic in Lagos, and Prudencia Anna Mettle from Ghana, Allen started drumming in his late teens after years of listening to jazz greats such as Gene Krupa, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones.

Koola Lobitos band

Impressed that Allen had the rhythmic fluency of a highlife musician and the technical virtuosity of an American jazz drummer, despite having never left the shores of Nigeria, Fela invited him to join a new incarnation of his Koola Lobitos band.

Alongside Lekan Animashaun on bass saxophone and Isaac Olasugbo, who both could sight read music and understand Fela’s complex arrangements, Allen led the rhythm section. It took months of painstaking rehearsals for the band to meet the exacting demands of Fela’s compositions.

Fela worked ever more closely with Allen, as he built the band’s engine room, its rhythm section – his phenomenal drumming augmented by half a dozen traditional drummers and percussionists.

The Koola Lobitos built up a following in Lagos night spots such as Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo and the Gondola in Yaba. An extended tour of Ghana followed established them as one of the most popular highlife bands in the region.

Then a tour of the United States in 1968 changed both the music and its political stance.

Impressed by the Black Power movement there, Fela saw ways to reinforce Kwame Nkrumah’s message of Pan-Africanism, just as military officers were seizing power in West Africa.

For his part, Allen soaked up the jazz scene in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles where he saw his musical mentors such as Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. He told a story about how Frank Butler had taught to practice drumming on pillows, to strengthen his control over the sticks.

Back in Lagos in 1969, Fela changed the name of the band to Africa 70. Then he and Allen began the most fruitful years of their musical partnership, lasting for another decade.

Africa 70

Allen was Africa 70’s musical director. He also drove the band’s prized Opel sedan and was chief electrical engineer who would wire up the amplifiers and microphones and organise sound checks.

Fela and Allen played on some 30 albums together, classics such as “Alagbon Close”, “Zombie”, “Shakara”, “Confusion” and “Upside Down”.

Allen started recording his own albums in 1975, at first with Fela as a producer, releasing a trio “Jealousy”, “Progress” and “No Accommodation for Lagos” while keeping his day job with Africa 70. With his eye on leading a band and following his own musical directions, Allen’s relations with Fela grew tenser.

Ying and Yang

For years, it had been ying and yang. Allen’s rhythmic buoyancy and lyricism had defined Afrobeat; he told friends that the experience of working with a composer and an arranger of Fela’s brilliance was worth the aggravation. Eventually, arguments over royalties’ pay and artistic credits forced a schism.

Like Fela, Allen was a committed pan-Africanist but saw little point in musicians goading the region’s well-armed military rulers. That confrontation reached its apotheosis when hundreds of Nigerian soldiers burned down Fela’s compound in Surulere known as the Kalakuta Republic in February 1977 and threw his mother out of a first floor window.

After a European tour the following year, culminating in an epic performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival, Allen quit the Africa 70.

Going solo

Putting his own music together and in high demand as a session musician, Allen stayed in Lagos until 1984 when he set off for Europe, first to London, then to Paris, where he played with an ever more eclectic coterie of musicians including reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin, US band Parliament Funkadelic and France’s Sébastien Tellier.

A regular at European jazz festivals, either with his own Afrobeat band or a star guest musician, Allen was pulled in to play on albums by French artists Charlotte Gainsbourg, Air and the Pan-African vocal group Zap Mama.

One of his closest collaborations over the last two decades was with Damon Albarn of Blur and latterly of Gorillaz.

One of Allen’s most poignant excursions across the channel was to play at a tribute concert to Dr Beko Ramsome-Kuti, Fela’s younger activist brother who had been gaoled by General Sani Abacha’s regime for campaigning for a return to civilian rule.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Nigerian Medical Association and government still feuding

At the Hammersmith Palais in West London in 2008, Allen took the stage alongside his old bandmates, Lekan Animashaun and Ademeji ‘Showboy’ Fagbemi backing Seun Kuti’s renditions of many of his father’s classic works.

“Essential to cosmopolitan Paris music scene”

Starting a new family with Sylvie Nicollet, Allen was based in the suburb of Courbevoie, becoming essential to the cosmopolitan Paris music scene.

With their well-funded festival seasons, France, Spain and Italy have long offered a base for itinerant African musicians. Having found more recognition for his music in France than Britain, Allen’s biggest struggle was with the immigration authorities but he eventually became a French citizen in the 2000s.

Just weeks before his death, Allen had completed work on his collaborative album “Rejoice” with South Africa’s Hugh Masekela.

The two had first met in Lagos in the 1970s when Masekela fled the apartheid regime to work with musicians across Africa and the United States. Masekela died two years ago and this latest work serves as a posthumous tribute to these two giants of African music.

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