The receptionist refuses to let me into Tony Allen’s hotel room as a matter of policy: no guests. The small-framed 75-year-old Nigerian emerges dressed in crisp sportswear and we walk to a café in between Algerian grocers and Ethiopian cafés in London’s Finsbury Park. Taut and sinewy, I wouldn’t have put him a year over sixty. He’s monosyllabic – a little tetchy perhaps, having flown back and forth between the city and his home in Paris twice in the past couple of days. Allen shakes his head sternly and covers his mug with a firm hand as the barista tries to offer him sugar.
He soon loosens up, and sparks up a mild, pre-rolled joint in the café garden. Still, he seems like a sombre man, with weight on his mind. While his life has been devoted to music – Brian Eno called him “the greatest living drummer” – chaos and desperation have often cast their shadows, from thieving managers and creative disagreements, to military repression and a period of heroin addiction.
‘No guests’ is a policy Allen himself couldn’t be more opposed to. I’m speaking to him between a show at Jazz Café as part of the dub techno collective Moritz von Oswald Trio and an afro-beat-meets-acid-jazz session at the world famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz bar with his friend Bukky Leo. His career has been constantly fired by sparking inspiration in a diverse series of collaborators including von Oswald, Damon Albarn, Ginger Baker, Doctor L, Theo Parrish, and, of course, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
When Allen became friends with the unpredictable, visionary bandleader Fela Kuti in the early sixties, the partnership lasted for 15 crazy years. First playing jazz and highlife as Koola Lobitos, whose amazing recordings were reissued this year, Fela reincarnated the band as Afrika ‘70, mixing it all up to create the sound of afrobeat. It put African music on the map like never before, and blew James Brown’s mind in the process. Allenko, as Fela called him, was the only one allowed to write his own parts. “I have four limbs, and four limbs have to do their separate things,” he recounts with pride. He put the beat into afrobeat.
Tony has recently returned from Port-au-Prince, where he was invited by the director of the French Institute as a kind of creative envoy to play a concert and strengthen the pulse of a country enfeebled by natural disaster. A brilliant album under the name Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra emerged from “raggedy” rehearsals with ten percussionists trained in the Haitian Vodou drumming tradition, linking squarely with the African styles that Allen grew up with. Ultimately though, it was a sobering experience. “What I saw at that time was poverty,” he recalls. “Too much, it’s horrible. That’s what I saw. It’s an eyesore, but you just have the earthquake so, one cannot, I cannot, imagine what it used to be before. And they have a crazy head of state, who don’t know nothing.”
This must have been sadly familiar ground for the musician. In the 60s, ethnic tension and eventually civil war left dead bodies piled in the gutter outside the Lagos clubs where Koola Lobitos played. During peacetime, it had been “a paradise” for dancers and party people, but the current picture, in Allen’s eyes, is untenable once again. “Every club became churches,” he says. “The current generation don’t know what we’re talking about. Now you can be shot in your home. You’re not sure if you’re going to wake up the next day.”
In the 70s, Fela Kuti had become highly politicised, even attempting to run for president. He faced down Nigeria’s corrupt military government in increasingly provocative songs, and eventually hundreds of soldiers raided the musician’s home, which he’d declared as an independent republic. Some of his entourage were raped and murdered, the compound was burnt down and Fela was put in prison – his mother in a fatal coma after being thrown out of a window. Allen left around this time – he’d never signed up for this madness. “Afrobeat is not supposed to be political music, it’s not,” he explains. “It’s your message that is militant, not the music. Fela was singing love songs before he became militant.”
Though Allen endured a fractious relationship with Fela, who died of AIDS- related heart failure in 1997, only love and respect now remain. “Nobody ever sang like Fela before – they don’t have the guts. Fela was the only one who was able to because he was a special person.” Though he rules out mixing politics with music in the way that Fela did, he still engages with important issues addressing the world. On the single Boat Journey from his most recent album, his lyrics poignantly foreshadowed the refugee crisis, and speaking about the recent terrorist attacks on music venues – Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the Bataclan in Paris, his home city – he is resolute. “They cannot succeed,” he states. “They are not going to stop us. I was playing three days after. For everybody to forget about life just like that? Nobody submits to that.”
After leaving Fela’s side, the 80s and 90s were a fairly quiet time for Allen, raising children in Paris and making ends meet as a working musician. But after the millennium, things happily heated up again, partly thanks to some chance encounters with Damon Albarn.
His second fifteen-year relationship with an influential bandleader began when the Blur frontman sang “Tony Allen got me dancing” on the band’s 2000 single Music Is My Radar. After a drunken meeting that saw the Blur frontman running onstage to embrace Allen at his drum kit, Albarn contributed vocals to Allen’s 2002 album Home Cooking, and the pair continued working together in Albarn’s supergroups The Good, the Bad and the Queen and Rocket Juice & The Moon. “For me he’s a pure artist,” says Allen. “Damon’s waking up every day with different ideas, and that is the way music should be. Damon is not in vogue, he’s doing everything, he’s exploring every avenue of music, wherever it’s coming from: Syria, Africa, Bamako, Nigeria, everywhere. So that means this is a nonstop guy.”
That label “nonstop” shows what Allen values, whether in his general outlook on life or his endlessly energetic drumming style. “I cannot play the same pattern throughout the night. Impossible, because my drumming has different influences crossing.”
“Nobody ever sang like Fela before – they don’t have the guts”
It was only natural that this open attitude, combined with Allen’s contributions to rhythmic evolution, would open a dialogue with dance music’s most monumental figures, including techno auteurs Carl Craig and Ricardo Villalobos, who have both remixed him. He made his first real foray into electronic music as part of the French downtempo collective Psyco On Da Bus, and later found a kindred spirit in the Detroit legend Theo Parrish, with whom he recorded Day Like This/Feel Loved in 2013, with new material from the pair surfacing soon. “Theo doesn’t have too many gadgets, but when it’s spinning, he has the soul. He knows how to kick the ass of the people, you understand?”
Bearing in mind the unique rhythmic bustle of Parrish’s style, it’s easy to see where the common ground was, but less so with the Moritz von Oswald Trio, with whom Allen just performed. The German dub techno innovator mixed Allen’s album Lagos No Shaking in 2006, and later asked the drummer to join Felix Loderbauer and himself in the collective after the departure of Sasu Ripatti (AKA Vladislav Delay). Together they recorded an album, Sounding Lines, where tracks roll out for miles, with little colour in a meditative pitter-patter of rhythm and subtle sound synthesis.
This seems, surely, like one step too far from where Allen’s roots are sunk; the sepia-toned electronic theorising of von Oswald and Loderbauer must disagree with Allen’s live, human rhythms that usually bubble and sizzle organically beneath raised voices and the wail of brass instruments. But this novel fusion is exactly what excites Allen. “People should just try to neutralise their minds sometimes,” he says. “You got to look for patterns that fit. That is how I operate.” His advice to would-be innovators is such: “Don’t stay on just one style throughout your life – they made it already. I love to deal with the sound in front of me, I put myself with it. It makes a change; diversity and colours, not just a machine. A machine is too static, but with human being feeling within it, it makes it lively.”
You certainly couldn’t accuse the musician of staying in one place. He continues to promote his 2014 album Film of Life, on which he sang, drummed and wrote the music, and July he’ll play twenty shows for Jamaican guitar legend Ernest Ranglin’s farewell tour. He’s also writing his first jazz album. As he heads off for rehearsals, he gives me some advice for the following night’s show. “Stay by my side,” he says, “so you can see what I do.” What I see and hear is a resilient, grooving musical force: a nonstop guy.
Tony Allen appears at Dekmantel Festival, Amsterdamse Bos, 4-7 August