What was it about Tony Allen?

Tony Allen – the drummer who created the rhythm behind Afrobeat – died on 30 April in Paris aged 79. Brian Eno famously called him “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived” – but not for the reasons you might expect. Tony Allen was not one to showboat or solo but he created a deceptively simple syncopation that became the infectious base for the most influential beat to emerge from the African continent – just called Afrobeat. Rather like the Winstons’ famous ‘Amen break‘ Tony Allen’s Afrobeat has shimmied its way around the world since its spiritual master Fela Kuti acknowledged that, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.” The thing is – and in whatever context – when Allen played just a few opening bars, you knew that this immediately recognisable sound must be him.

Listen to a few examples just to prove the point. Sebastian Tellier’s La Ritournelle isn’t Afrobeat – but this could only be Tony Allen. Similarly, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5:55 is nowhere near it – but Tony Allen is unmistakeable. So how did this start?

Allen was born in Lagos, Nigeria and was largely self taught as a drummer. He had grown up listening to the dominant juju style, but American jazz was a big influence too – drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach in particular. When he came across the sounds of Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren (later known as Kofi Ghanaba), Allen realised that you could mix Nigerian and Ghanaian tribal drum rhythms with bop idioms. Soon he was hired by Sir Victor Olaiya to play drums with his Cool Cats group (left). Allen later gave a nod to the start of his drumming career on on the track Cool Cats from his 2017 album The Source.

When Fela Kuti invited Allen to audition for a new group he was forming the two soon became a partnership. “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” Kuti asked him. The pair formed the Koola Lobitos group, playing a mix of highlife, traditional Yoruba music, jazz, funk, salsa and calypso driven by Allen’s polyrhythmic beats. Fela would later give this musical stew the name Afrobeat and with his dazzling arrangements, charismatic personality, and explicit human rights activism, Fela Kuti and Afrika ’70 could only succeed. The result was an unparalled period of creativity resulting in over thirty Fela albums that featured Allen but was ended by Fela’s ego and his control over rights and royalties. Allen took some key members of Afrika ’70 with him and the result was some fine recordings, including the superb N.E.P.A. (or Never Expect Power Only – the alternative acronym for the Nigerian Electrical Power Authority). Here’s When One Road Close as an example of this more punchy style – complete with dub effects too.

This experimentation was the start of a period in which Allen deconstructed Afrobeat, fusing it with electronica, dub and rap. But the jazz roots were never far away and in 2017 came Allen’s tribute to Art Blakey – and this Afrobeat take on the classic Moanin’ has that syncopated drum sound right there from the start. And as Allen continued to release albums that expanded on his Afrobeat origins his last release from March 2020 was a much delayed project with the late Hugh Masekela appropriately titled Rejoice – here’s the wonderful Slow Bones. Now, continue your celebration of the life and music of this true legend – choose any track from the list below. You won’t be disappointed.

More Tony Allen…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *