Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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TONY ALLEN: To The Beat Of The Drum

Tony Allen performing at the Red Bull Academy
Tony Allen performing at the Red Bull Academy Tony performing at the Red Bull Academy Tony Allen performing at the Red Bull Academy Tony Allen performing at the Red Bull Academy

As part of 2009âs Red Bull Music Academy programme, legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen - acclaimed globally as âthe Godfather of Afrobeatâ - recently performed in London for a one-off concert alongside New York-based instrumental nine-piece The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.

A true intuitive pioneer, Tonyâs 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 Kutiâs seminal band Africa â70 (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 Londonâs Cargo being part of DJ Karen Pâs 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 âB&Sâ at Great Eastern Streetâs 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 Blurâs 2000 single âMusic Is My Radarâ (with the line âTony Allen got me dancingâ), 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 âthe greatest drummer on the planetâ. Allen himself now reciprocates the compliment by in turn claiming Damon to be the most talented artist heâs worked with since he left Fela Kutiâs band some 29 years ago: âYeah, Damonâs a geniusâ, he openly gushes: âHeâs got so many ideas, and thereâs 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) âHome Cookingâ album. He wrote and sang on the opening track âEvery Seasonâ, and weâve been hooking-up ever since. Like Iâm 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 Damonâs label Honest Jonâs. I can basically relate to whatever he brings, whether it be pop, rock, whatever. You know, Iâve seen good composers before, but Damonâs definitely something special. Heâs an inspiration.â

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 âSirâ Victor Olaiyaâs 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: â I knew I couldnât compete with the great American jazz drummers because they were already superstarsâ, he recalls: âSo, 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 Iâd grown up with, and was surrounded by, at home.â

Meanwhile, the meeting that would change Allenâs 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 â70), 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 outfitâs. Groundbreaking blend of African rhythms with US funk and jazz: âYeah, after our first audition Fela was like âHow come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this - jazz AND highlife?â... You know, thatâs why he wanted me!â, asserts Tony: âAnd, 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. Heâd try to write it for me, but we both knew it didnât sound as good that way! Fela would always say I sounded like FOUR drummers!â

With arguments within the ranks of Africa â70 over royalty payments and recognition growing in intensity, Tony left in 1979 to form his own group, with whom he recorded the compelling âNo Discriminationâ 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, Allenâs 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 âAfrofunkâ. Diverse recordings heâs worked on in recent years include Parisian âman-of-mysteryâ Sebastien Tellierâs album âPoliticsâ and French chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourgâs 2007 LP â5:55â; 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 âSecret Agentâ due for release this coming June, at 68 Tony displays a refreshing interest in keeping his music current: âIf you want the music to stick around, you have to keep MOVING!â, he asserts: âThatâs why Iâm often collaborating with people whose music doesnât sound like mine! I never forget that Afrobeat is very adaptable! And what Iâm 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! Thatâs 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!â

Tony Allen & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble's January 29 show at Cargo, London can be heard now on Red Bull Music Academy Radio at

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz
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