Tony Allen: the man who brought Afrobeat to the world

Dubbed the world’s greatest drummer, the Nigerian musician who died in April co-created the Afrobeat genre and went on to collaborate with artists across the musical spectrum.

Obituary columns following Nigerian musician Tony Oladipo Allen’s passing at the end of April have rightly celebrated him as one of the world’s greatest drummers. He died on 30 April 2020 at the age of 79 from an aortic aneurysm. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s in Lagos, Allen was, alongside Fela Kuti, the co-creator of Afrobeat, which was a fusion of funk, jazz and West African highlife. Many of the obituaries have focused on the years between 1969 and 1978, when Allen was cooking up a funky stew in Fela’s kitchen, lighting an Afrobeat revolution across the African continent and the world. But the second half of Allen’s career, a period that arguably began in the late 1990s, saw him become something as important as the world’s greatest drummer: one of the world’s most successful and adventurous collaborators.

Not many artists can claim to have worked with such a diverse and glittering roster of global artists. Among Allen’s collaborators are the golden-voiced Erykah Badu, Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ bassist Flea, Detroit techno legend Jeff Mills, American experimental hip-hop head Gonjasufi, French singer Charlotte Gainsbourg and South Africa jazz legend Hugh Masekela. Most impressive was how quickly Allen could flip from one context to the other, always delivering the goods.

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While the first half of Allen’s career may have introduced the key development of Afrobeat to the world, the second half was spent cross-pollinating the genre’s rhythms into just about every other style of music. That legacy may turn out to be just as significant as those revolutionary years alongside Fela Kuti in 1970s Lagos.

The birth of Afrobeat

The first half of Allen’s career began in the early 1960s when he was schooled in the life of a professional musician by Sir Victor Olaiya’s highlife band, the Cool Cats. Although happy to have a gig as a regular drummer, Allen wasn’t satisfied just playing highlife. He was searching for a way to fuse highlife with influences from American bebop jazz drummers such as Art Blakey and Max Roach. In 1964 he got his opportunity, joining a young Fela Kuti’s Koola Lobitos band.

After a tour of America in the late 1960s, Allen began to add funk influences to the band’s highlife-jazz fusion and Kuti’s lyrics took on a fiery political tone. This was the birth of Afrobeat. Koola Lobitos was renamed Africa 70, and Allen became the band’s musical director. Kuti and Allen would go on to change music forever with a string of Afrobeat classics including Everything Scatter, Water No Get Enemy, Roforofo Fight, Coffin For Head of State, Expensive Shit and Zombie. Together they made music history. 

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In 1978, Allen quit Kuti’s band, disgruntled at the way it was being managed. He had already released a number of his own compositions with backing from Africa 70, but Allen now began to put together his own group, the Afro Messengers. The band released some great records, but life in Nigeria was becoming increasingly dominated by violent crime and harsh economic conditions under a succession of military dictatorships. During the mid-1980s, Allen chose to leave for Europe, settling in Paris.

A fresh start

The late 1980s and most of the 1990s were lean years for Allen in terms of recorded music. But slowly he began to relaunch his career with a string of albums that fused his Afrobeat drum patterns with the sounds of P-funk (a greasy form of funk spawned by the likes of George Clinton), dub, electro and hip-hop.

His 1999 album Black Voices featured collaborations with vocalists Michael “Clip” Payne and Gary “Mudbone” Cooper from George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic orbit, as well as French-Irish producer Doctor L, who brought the dub and trip-hop influences to the album.

His 2002 album Home Cooking saw Allen collaborating with British rapper Ty, whose own album Upwards would earn the London star a Mercury Prize nomination the following year. Home Cooking also featured Blur frontman Damon Albarn on album opener Every Season.

In October 2000, Blur had released a single titled Music Is My Radar, which featured the lyric “Tony Allen really got me dancing” repeated throughout the song. Someone played the single for Allen, and he contacted Albarn about singing on his Home Cooking album.

It was the start of a fruitful series of collaborations between Allen and Albarn that would result in two bands – The Good, the Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon. Their relationship would play an important role in redefining the influence of Afrobeat.

Two decades of collaboration

Allen’s membership of The Good, the Bad & the Queen, alongside Albarn, former Clash bassist Paul Simonon and Verve guitarist Simon Tong, went some way to introducing the Afrobeat rhythm to a new generation of rock listeners. Also, hearing Allen and Flea interlock on a funky groove behind Erykah Badu on Rocket Juice & the Moon’s Hey Shooter, presented the Afrobeat rhythm in a more mainstream pop context.

While these two projects were important in terms of their reach, some of Allen’s most successful and stimulating collaborations were often more left-field, both in terms of ideas and the artists with whom he played.

His 2009 collaboration with Finnish saxophonist Jimi Tenor, titled Inspiration Information Vol 4, was truly inspired. Hearing Tenor’s saxophone and Allen’s drums interlock on the song Selfish Gene is an experience of the sublime.

In 2018 he collaborated with Detroit techno legend Jeff Mills on a killer album titled Tomorrow Comes The Harvest. Mills and Allen’s Locked and Loaded is an Afrobeat-driven techno jam that makes so much sense you can’t help wondering why it didn’t happen sooner. As Mills said of Allen, “Drummers like him are why guys decided to make drum machines, because the beats were so complex.”

Allen’s drumming on the Moritz Von Oswald Trio’s 2015 album Sounding Lines is another left-field success story. His shuffling Afrobeat drum patterns fluidly intertwined with the minimalist techno of the German trio. Von Oswold referred to Allen as “a drum machine with soul”.

In 2018 Benin’s Angélique Kidjo dropped her magnificent re-recording of the Talking Heads seminal album Remain in Light. Kidjo, who was studying music in France in 1980 when it was released, was laughed at by fellow students when she suggested that the Talking Heads were playing African rhythms. Of course the joke was on those students as Kidjo was correctly identifying the influence of Fela Kuti and Africa 70 on the New York art-funkers. Talking Heads would be the first to admit and acknowledge this influence. In fact, one of the outtakes of Remain in Light was even called Fela’s Riff.

So when Kidjo decided to reclaim the songs from Remain in Light in a re-recording of the album, it was only fitting that it was Allen who sat behind the drum kit. Kidjo’s Remain in Light was one of those circular moments in music, where Allen was engaging with and responding to his own legacy and influence, 38 years after the original Remain in Light was released. It was also a damn fine album and just one more example – if we needed one – that Allen’s second career as a serial collaborator just kept delivering.

A perfect bookend

At the beginning of May this year, just days after Allen died, Damon Albarn’s band Gorillaz, released a new single titled How Far?

The new single features Allen on both drums and vocals, alongside London’s Mercury prize-winning grime star Skepta. It’s a perfect bookend to the second half of Allen’s career, which began with Allen opening himself up to the influence of European dub, electro and hip-hop.

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The cover of the single features the cartoon Gorillaz shot from the back staring up at a profile picture of Allen, who has his drumsticks raised against his nose and forehead. It’s a visual representation of mourning that speaks to the loss we are all feeling with Allen’s passing.

For over 50 years Allen served the global music fan with album after album and gig after gig of fiercely intelligent and funky, ass-shaking rhythm. Tony Allen may have got us dancing in the first half of his career, but in the second he went even further: he helped us rethink our understanding of the fluidity of music.

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