TONY ALLEN: To The Beat Of The Drum
As part of 2009’s Red Bull Music Academy programme, legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen - acclaimed globally as “the Godfather of Afrobeat” - recently performed in London for a one-off concert alongside New York-based instrumental nine-piece The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
A true intuitive pioneer, Tony’s early experience on the late Fifties Lagos music scene ultimately found him creating his own unique style through mixing the brevity and snap of American jazz drumming with the deep, extended forms of local African rhythms. However, it was during his later stint as drummer and music director of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s seminal band Africa ‘70 (from 1968 to 1979) that Allen unquestionably evolved into one of the primary co-founders of the aforementioned Afrobeat music - a new, militant African sound that mixed the heavy groove and universal appeal of James Brown funk with jazz, Nigerian highlife and traditional Yoruba polyrhythms.
With his aforementioned recent show at East London’s Cargo being part of DJ Karen P’s ongoing, genre-defying Broad Casting events (whose aim is to combine the energy of great live music in an intimate venue with the 24-hour worldwide reach of Red Bull Music Academy Radio) a small, wiry-framed Mr. Allen holds court with ‘B&S’ at Great Eastern Street’s trendy Hoxton Hotel. First topic on the agenda being his continuing involvement with former Blur frontman Damon Albarn. A relationship which began after Albarn paid lyrical homage to Tony on Blur’s 2000 single ‘Music Is My Radar’ (with the line “Tony Allen got me dancing”), and which has more recently seen Damon bring Allen to a mainstream audience by incorporating him as drummer in his The Good, The Bad & The Queen project. Whose EMI-released, self-titled debut was widely hailed by rock critics as one of the best albums of 2007.
Indeed, with Albarn having described him as “the greatest drummer on the planet”. Allen himself now reciprocates the compliment by in turn claiming Damon to be the most talented artist he’s worked with since he left Fela Kuti’s band some 29 years ago: “Yeah, Damon’s a genius”, he openly gushes: “He’s got so many ideas, and there’s something new happening all the time. It was after Damon mentioned me in that Blur song that I first invited him onto my (2002-released) ‘Home Cooking’ album. He wrote and sang on the opening track ‘Every Season’, and we’ve been hooking-up ever since. Like I’m playing on the new album from The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (whose line-up of eight brass-players plus one drummer has previously seen them collaborating with artists like Mos Def and Erykah Badu), which will be coming out on Damon’s label Honest Jon’s. I can basically relate to whatever he brings, whether it be pop, rock, whatever. You know, I’ve seen good composers before, but Damon’s definitely something special. He’s an inspiration.”
Born in Lagos in 1940, as a self-taught musician Allen began to play drum-kit at age 18 while working as an engineer for a Nigerian radio station. Spending the late Fifties apprenticing in a number of Nigerian highlife bands - most notably ‘Sir’ Victor Olaiya’s The Cool Cats - he swiftly developed his own sound by combining the rhythms of the growing local highlife scene and traditional Yoruba music with those of American jazz drummers Max Roach and Art Blakey: “ I knew I couldn’t compete with the great American jazz drummers because they were already superstars”, he recalls: “So, though I wanted to do something like they were doing, I knew I had to find my OWN sound by blending what they did with the styles I’d grown up with, and was surrounded by, at home.”
Meanwhile, the meeting that would change Allen’s life came in 1964, when he was asked to audition for a then-jazz DJ at Nigeria Broadcasting called Fela Kuti, who was looking for the right drummer for his jazz-highlife band Koola Lobitos. With the audition a success, a musical partnership was formed that was to last for 26 years. Indeed, with the two men creating some of the most incendiary music to ever come out of Africa (particularly during the Seventies, after Kuti had renamed his band Africa ‘70), Allen ended up playing on more than 30 Fela Kuti albums; not only providing the back-beat, but also acting as band-leader and co-creator of the outfit’s. Groundbreaking blend of African rhythms with US funk and jazz: “Yeah, after our first audition Fela was like ‘How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this - jazz AND highlife?’... You know, that’s why he wanted me!”, asserts Tony: “And, though he used to write out the parts for all the musicians in the band, I was the only one who actually ORIGINATED the music I played. He’d try to write it for me, but we both knew it didn’t sound as good that way! Fela would always say I sounded like FOUR drummers!”
With arguments within the ranks of Africa ’70 over royalty payments and recognition growing in intensity, Tony left in 1979 to form his own group, with whom he recorded the compelling ‘No Discrimination’ album in 1980. Remaining in Lagos until he emigrated to London in 1984, he eventually ended up in Paris, which remains his base to this day. Musically, meanwhile, Allen’s post-Fela career has found him developing a hybrid sound, fusing Afrobeat with varied musical styles ranging from electronica, dub, R&B and rap - a synthesis he himself refers to as ‘Afrofunk’. Diverse recordings he’s worked on in recent years include Parisian ”man-of-mystery” Sebastien Tellier’s album ’Politics’ and French chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 2007 LP ‘5:55’; while he also played a significant role in the James Brown In Africa project, which united various African musicians with former Brown sidemen like Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley.
With his own next album ‘Secret Agent’ due for release this coming June, at 68 Tony displays a refreshing interest in keeping his music current: ”If you want the music to stick around, you have to keep MOVING!”, he asserts: “That’s why I’m often collaborating with people whose music doesn’t sound like mine! I never forget that Afrobeat is very adaptable! And what I’m trying to convince people, by working with fresh artists like (UK rapper) Ty, is that Afrobeat can work with ANY style of music! So long as you keep the Afrobeat rhythm as the core, everything will roll on it! That’s why I love to work with artists who bring completely different things from what I bring. Whether you do rock, pop, funk, whatever - you just have to learn to feel the grove, and then we can start making great music together!”
Tony Allen & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble's January 29 show at Cargo, London can be heard now on Red Bull Music Academy Radio at RBMAradio.com
Words PETE LEWIS