Remembering Tony Allen, the pioneering Afrobeat drummer who inspired generations
Drumming is often the pursuit of power. Look to the controlled whirlwinds of classic rock or big band swing, the notion of a steady groove underpinned by a simmering sense of chaos, ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Yet this was not the case for Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who passed away last Thursday aged 79.
Allen’s style might seem deceptively simple – a mid-tempo, mid-volume displacement of the backbeat common to western rock and pop. Yet, listen closer and you soon realise Allen is peppering his groove with ghost notes, scattered kick drums and bright bursts of hi-hat. This is the eminently danceable Afrobeat sound he is best known for creating with multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti. It is an all-enveloping sound, pushing the drum kit to a new melodic language that extends beyond rhythm itself; part Yoruban polyrhythm, part calypso swing and part highlife melody. For Allen, drumming was the continual pursuit of groove, rather than a metronomic stasis.
Allen was self-taught on the drums, inspired by the jazz playing of Art Blakey and Max Roach. He got his start playing for highlife trumpeter Victor Olaiya and groups such as the Nigerian Messengers before meeting Kuti in the early 1960s in Lagos, Nigeria. Initially forming a highlife group, the Koola Lobitos band, a 1969 tour to the US would prove pivotal in creating Afrobeat. There both musicians were exposed to the Black Panther movement and the power of music as a tool for protest, returning to Nigeria to record early hits like the jaunty shuffle of Roforofo Fight in 1972 and the political resistance of Water No Get Enemy in 1975. The Panthers had inspired Kuti to be more forceful in his lyrical critiques of the Nigerian government and to use his platform for a pan-African nationalist message, leading him to name his band Africa 70 and to enlist Allen as its musical director.
Their Afrobeat protest music reached its fullest expression on 1976’s Zombie, a blistering saxophone-laden number comparing the violent Nigerian army to mindless zombies. The song was a hit in Nigeria but that success came with traumatic consequences: Kuti’s studio complex was burnt to the ground and he received a severe beating. His elderly mother was thrown from a window and killed. Allen himself only escaped because he was in the midst of one of his marathon jam sessions at Kuti’s club the Shrine – a Nigerian home for jazz featuring regular visits from the likes of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Brazil’s Gilberto Gil.
The end of the 70s also brought personal rifts between Kuti and Allen. Notoriously domineering, Kuti refused to pay out any recording royalties to his band members, despite Allen’s role as musical director. Already recording music without Kuti and with three albums as a bandleader under his belt – 1975’s Jealousy, 1977’s Progress and 1979’s No Accommodation for Lagos – in 1979 Allen decided to end their partnership and take many Africa 70 members with him.
From there, Allen established himself as an architect of Afrobeat in his own right, with a relocation to Paris and various stints playing in the late Manu Dibango’s band and American disco troupe Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Forever sharply dressed in his fedora and embellished with sunglasses and rattling jewellery, he was becoming an elder statesman of the kit. His solo work was also continuing, most notably with 1984’s NEPA (Never Expect Power Always). Here Allen pushed forward the socially-conscious approach of his work with Kuti, now targeting the unreliable Nigerian Electrical Power Authority and updating the Afrobeat sound to include dub-inflected electronics and fusion funk.
As the end of the century approached, marked by Kuti’s death in 1997, Allen moved decisively beyond the shadow of his former bandmate to carry the torch for Afrobeat, increasingly absorbing new genres in the process. The pop world was awakening to his influence and so Blur’s Damon Albarn enlisted Allen for his 2007 supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen. The project allowed Allen to cut loose behind the kit in new ways, getting as close as he ever would to a rock hedonism when laying down a clattering, cymbal-heavy beat on their debut record’s title track.
Allen also moved further into the orbit of electronic music, joining techno producer Moritz von Oswald’s trio for their 2015 album Sounding Lines, as well as teaming up with Detroit pioneer Jeff Mills for 2018’s remarkable Tomorrow Comes the Harvest. Finally, it seemed Allen had the freedom to explore all the facets of his musicality, away from Kuti’s authority or the commercial demands to merely replay Afrobeat standards. Now he could chop up his acoustic grooves into metallic shards for Mills’ modular manipulations, as well as record a tribute to Art Blakey’s work on the jazz label Blue Note. These experiments, relatively late in his career, not only demonstrated his curiosity but would serve to assert Allen’s influence across genres. His legacy is keenly felt in the current jazz resurgence, with two of its brightest drumming stars, Ezra Collective’s Femi Koleoso and Moses Boyd, learning not only from Allen’s music but his mentorship too.
Quietly humble, forever adorned in a wreath of cigarette smoke and seemingly happiest when behind the kit, Allen’s legacy is ultimately that of elevating rhythm to the status of joy. His playing was not flashy nor loud, it merely served to make his audience feel, and most of all, dance. Brian Eno may have called him “the greatest drummer who ever lived”, but you get the sense from Allen’s discreet presence and relentless work ethic that he would dispute that. For him, it was the music that mattered, not the status. It is in his music that his kinetic, infectious presence will live on.