-Without Tony Allen AFROBEAT wouldn’t exist.
These words were spoken by the charismatic originator of the Nigerian musical movement, Fela Kuti, about his leading drummer. Perhaps as an important admission. After 11 years of productive collaboration, including 30 studio albums, Tony Allen chose to break with Kuti in 1979 due to an in-satisfaction with the conditions he was offered in the band. Still, a portrait of Allen must begin with the backstory of Fela Kuti and his legacy.
MUSIC AS A WEAPON
From 1968-1979 Tony Allen defined the rhythmical puls in the AFRICA 70 BAND. With an origin in Ghanaian HIGHLIFE the band with Kuti in charge created a musical breakthrough in Nigerian popular music and set the stage of a social, political and cultural protest movement with far-reaching influence. Fela Kuti’s vision was not restricted to the homecountry Nigeria. After having lived in England where he studied classical music he came to the conclusion that the post-colonial Africa had to be shaped by the African citizens themselves. Not by western democracies willing to negotiate with African military dictators. When he returned to Nigeria it was with the intention to create a popular movement, liberated from western cultural dominance which in his conviction was characterized by having one set of rule for their own democracies and another for the leaders they supported in Africa.
AFRICANISM Kuti called his own core values.
Opposed to DEMO-CRAZY or DEMONSTRATION OF CRAZY as he playfully described the western approach.
Kuti considered music a weapon against the dictatorship and his confrontational line had personal costs for him throughout the years; about 200 arrests, torture, imprisonment and finally the murder of his mother, who during one of her son’s imprisonments were thrown out of the window by the regime’s soldiers.
Fela Kuti’s significance in Nigeria transcended the music and when he died 58 years old more than a million people participated in the burial parade.
A part from the band’s political impact the afrobeat also effected western music. It was above all the rhythm that inspired jazz, pop and even rock as it can be heard on Talking Heads two albums: REMAIN IN THE LIGHT (1980) and SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1983).
Tony Allen had already before he met Kuti created a unique and personal style in the fusion of Ghanaian highlife, american jazz and the westafrican YORUBA, which is characterized by a particular advanced drumming tradition.
When he left the ensemble he had to be replaced by 4 other drummers to obtain the same poly-rhythmical level as before.
His ability to treat every drum independently of the others is one of the factors that has made him recognized as one of the best skilled drummers of all time.
In Nigeria they refer to him as Dr. Allen.
-You can recognize a good drummer by his ability to play different rhythms with each of the 4 limbs he is using, he has stated. Each drum should have its own sound. It’s like 4 different characters.
Allen’s beat is characterized by a kind of lightness as if he is brushing the drumhead rather than hitting it.
-Just like you have to remember to kiss your wife every day, you have to be good to your instrument. The drums should be caressed as if they were a piano. The beat is a melody, he explains.
But the sensibility of Tony Allen’s beat should not be confused with a cautious temperament. On the contrary it’s an expression of a confident style and a superior technique.
“Don’t take my kindness for weakness” as he eloquently puts it in one of his own lyrics from the album SECRET AGENT (2006)
At times AFRICA 70 counted up to 30 musicians, for whom Fela arranged all of the music. Only Allen had free rein to play the rhythms he wanted.
But in 1984 Allen travelled to Europe to find his own sound. First to London and later Paris, where he lives today. His musical expedition has lead to a fusion of the AFROBEAT, electronically music, r&b, dub and rap: the AFROFUNK.
Among some of his most noticeable collaborations is the band ROCKET JUICE & THE MOON with the front-figure of BLUR and GORILLAZ Damon Albarn thus RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS’ bass player Flea.
I recently met Tony Allen for an interview in Florence, where he played a gig with his set ensemble consisting of piano, bass, guitar, saxofon and trumpet on the occasion of the release of his newest album THE SOURCE. ( 2017)
We are sitting closely together in the dressing room after the concert, concentrating intensely on hearing what each other is saying. Hard pumping techno is now playing in the club and we are continuously interrupted by visiting musicians and acquaintances who have come backstage to get a selfie with the master. I hold on to our eye contact to avoid too many interruptions and I notice how Tony Allen’s dark and harmonious face is completed by a pair of luminous blue eyes. I wonder where they come from.
Tony Allen speaks calmly and rhythmically.
How do you choose the musicians you collaborate with?
-These musicians have been with me for several years. Even if they also play in other projects, they have to be here, when I have something for them.
You prefer to concentrate on continuous collaborations like this?
-Yes, because its a transmission of vibrations that takes place. Telepathy simply.
–I am not a band leader, who is front stage with a microphone like a singer. I can’t carry my drums around on stage. So the people who work with me have to know certain things. How I count and what it means. I don’t need to count with these musicans. They know me and my timing. That is the most important thing.
So you trust them?
-Yes. Like when I take part in other bands where I haven’t composed the music. First and foremost I respect and refer to the music that has been written. But I don’t agree to play just anything. That’s why I prefer to collaborate with my regular musicans.
-If you are attentive you will always be able to see who is in charge of a band. But it’s not necessary to go on an ego trip. A lot of band leaders I know have too much of an ego. None of us can avoid our ego. It’s Inherent. But the point is to know, when to let go of it. Occasionally you still have to act on it though.
When does that happen in your case?
-When something is not going the way I want it to, says Allen and laughs. If it seems like the others don’t understand, where I want to go I have to interfere. They accept it because in the end everybody wants the same thing.
Is it the aim of music to reach that point, where everybody can let go of the ego, in your opinion?
-Absolutely. In the end, you write music for musicians who you want to give the best of who they are. They have developed something inside themselves through their life as a professional musican.
THE MEDITERANEAN BY BOAT
Allen’s personal search after the time with Kuti lead to a break from recording and playing publicly for almost 10 years.
What lead you to Europe?
-After I left Fela it took me a long time to even consider what to do next. It wasn’t really a decision I made myself. I was pushed by one of my friends from France. He saw me with Kuti and said: you don’t have to stay in this. That kind of competition is not good for you.
-So what do you want me to do? I asked him.
-Come to Europe!
Not until 1984 did Tony Allen go to London, where it was difficult to establish himself at first.
The fact that England was the first station on the journey for Allen puts his background into perspective. In his autobiography he tells how his surname Allen is a slavename from his father’s family. His grandfather had been saved by a british slave patrol in Sierre Leone and on that occasion been given the name Allen. When Tony had to have his papers approved they asked him suspiciously where he had his English surname from.
– I looked at the police man and laughed.
-I wish I knew my real name. Because this name I got from you guys. So why do you ask me, where I got it from?
Had you expected to return to Nigeria at some point?
–At that time I went in and out of London. I lived there for 2 years. But I didn’t want to stay there illegally. I wanted to have the right conditions in which to work, and I didn’t want to accept any kind of job in relation to music.
How did you feel Europe effected your musicality in the beginning?
–In London I couldn’t find the right musicians to play with. When I moved to Paris I succeeded in creating a larger band. But I was told that I had to reduce the size of it. So I had to compose the music according to that. Whatever works is what I go for. If I have to cut down, I cut down. I can play in any kind of formation.
-I can also play like the others, but I’m not interested in that. It wouldn’t be Tony Allen.
It’s important to believe in what you are doing.
What does Nigeria mean to you today?
-Nigeria is completely changed compared to the Nigeria I was born into. Everything is different, so I hate talking about it. I simply can’t believe what it has become. But I am not a politician so I stay out of it. I just pray, that it will return to what it once was.
Tony Allen is not as unengaged as he might seem when it comes to the political situaiton in Nigeria or the rest of Africa. Like Fela Kuti, he writes lyrics on the subject and performs them himself, even if he calls himself an amateur singer.
On the album “Film of Life” (2014) he expresses himself directly to the country men and women who cross the Mediterranean in the hope of a better future.
Don’t take the boat journey, my brothers!
Running away from misery
And you can find yourself in a double misery
Even if they let you enter
The situation here is not so cool
Extract from “Boat journey”
Allen himself has now lived 30 years in France and is one of the few African musicians who has created a solid carrier while contributing to the expansion of the Afrobeat sound in Europe.
-Tony Allen made me dance, Damon Albarn said in connection with their collaboration.
The ambiguity of lives lived in circumstances of repression and suffering while maintaining an expressive and life confirming dance culture is beautifully captured in the track WORO DANCE on the album THE SOURCE.
The melody of the horns seems to lean itself on Coltrane’s sorrowful ALABAMA, but the beat is unmistakably Allen’s.
A musical cosmopolitan who seems to return to the motherland again and again through his music.
As one can hear in the choir on the album HOMECOOKING:
-From a distance calling. I hear a song calling me from the motherland. Something deep inside me. Something so strong calling me from the motherland…
This article will be published in Danish in the upcoming edition of JazzSpecial: