Tony Allen, who with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti co-created Afrobeat – a movement in music that has now become one of the most influential in popular music – departed this life last Thursday, April 30. Yinka Olatunbosun reviews his life and times
Tony Oladipo Allen had his last breath on April 30, a date known globally as the International Jazz Day. Though the news of his death was a shock to many, it was no surprise that it would happen on a significant day in history even if it was just a few months to his 80th birthday. Last December, his pre-80th birthday was celebrated in Lagos amidst a close-knit music family including jazz influencers such as the Founder, Lagos International Jazz Festival, Ayoola Shadare and the master flutist, Tee Mac Omatsola Iseli.
Allen was a most sought-after drummer of his generation especially by foreign media. He is famously regarded as “four-in-one” drummer because after his exit from Fela’s band in 1979, he was replaced by four drummers. In his book, This Fela Sef, the broadcast journalist, music critic and Fela’s first manager, Benson Idonije revealed how Allen came to join Fela’s band. Of course, his career in music started before he met the iconoclast Afrobeat musician.
“For percussion, I went to Chief Ladebu’s Western Hotel at Mushin on the mainland of Lagos, where the great highlife composer and lyricist, Adeolu Akinsanya was playing at the time, leading the Western Toppers Band. From there, I picked Tony Allen the drummer,” he recounted. Allen also had a stint with Victor Olaiya and the Cool Cats band. But he was headhunted after Fela had tried so hard to get a drummer that could really play jazz.
The music experiment called Afrobeat which constitutes a defining moment in his career is indeed a product of Fela’s jazz background and Allen’s highlife experience. Fela was blown away by Pino’s soul popularity and needed to change the direction of his music. Pino’s music was fashioned after James Brown; and he was fast dominating nightlife in Lagos. With Allen’s ingenuity with the drums, Fela created the new sound known as Afrobeat.
This fact was also validated by another documentarian and culture enthusiast, Tam Fiofori who wrote in his piece, “AfroBEATS and Rhythms” published by BookArtVille on March 25, 2020.
“Tony Allen is an exceptional and naturally gifted trap drummer, with the extraordinary ability as from the sixties to be a pulse-4/4 jazz drummer; a very rare breed of jazz drummer, capable in Sun Ra’s words, of achieving the distinctive “shuffle beat,” in jazz. Hence, Fela as the CEO of the music and Tony Allen as the Executive Director of rhythms were able to create the novel, now global, musical genre of AFROBEAT.”
Though a self-taught drummer, Allen honed his craft by studying the works of other music greats such as Art Blake, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke. From 1964 till 1979, Allen played with Fela and made classics such as Alagbon Close’, ‘Everything Scatter’, ‘Expensive Shit’, ‘Yellow Fever’, ‘Zombie’, ‘Kalakuta Show’, ‘Sorrow Tears And Blood’ amongst others.
Allen began creating his own sound and by 1975, he recorded his debut album, ‘Jealousy’, the first of three made with Fela’s Afrika 70 and produced by Fela. ‘Progress’ followed in 1976, ‘No Accommodation For Lagos’ in 1978. In 1979, he left Fela’s band and formed his own band, Tony Allen and the Afro Messengers and developed another genre, Afrofunk.
His final studio collaboration with Kuti was on an album made with American vibraphonist Roy Ayers, ‘Africa Centre Of The World’ (1981). After relocating to Paris, Allen recorded with King Sunny Adé, Ray Lema and Manu Dibango. Allen recorded N.E.P.A. in 1985 and developed his own hybrid sound, Afrofunk. He released Lagos No Shaking in 2006; His album entitled Secret Agent was released in June 2009 by World Circuit.
In a tribute message, the Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) acknowledged the contribution of Allen to music across several generations of artists, describing him as ‘one of the greats of Nigerian and African music.’
“Tony in many ways influenced many of the great drummers who emerged on the music scene in Nigeria in the 1970s and 80s such as the great Mosco Egbe who shaped Sonny Okosun’s Ozzidi sound, Mike Umoh who was on drums for many years in Bongos Ikwue’s ‘Groovies’, Richard Ayodele Cole who played with the likes of Victor Uwaifo and Christy Essien-Igbokwe’s Goldtrain Orchestra, Rockie of the Elcados and Kabassa bands and of course the Cameroonian born, Mambo who left Geraldo Pino’s band to join Fela’s Egypt 80. He played the drums in Angélique Kidjo’s Grammy Award winning 2019 album, Celia, and had a collaborative album with Hugh Masekela titled ‘Rejoice’ which was released this year,” Chief Tony Okòroji, Chairman, COSON, wrote.
A music promoter and CEO, The Grey Company, Tony Domo Martins also extolled the legacy of Allen in music.
“Tony Allen introduced the unique drum beat which became the identity of the Afrobeat genre. The brand of music became popular all over the world even to this day. Good night sir and may God grant eternal rest. A Legend is gone!”
American-Nigerian Rapper, Jinenna was one of the first to pay a tribute in a tweet a few hours after his death was announced by his manager.
“Rest In Power, Tony Allen, The Godfather of Afrobeat Rhythms. Thank you for giving us the sound that would change our lives and our destiny as a people.”
Shadare, the founder, LIJF, who organised “Lagos No Shaking Homecoming Concert” for Allen in December 2019 said that Allen would have been in this year’s edition of LIJF if not for Covid-19 outbreak that grounded every concert and festival.
“Tony Allen wasn’t just a great musician or drummer but a great human being personally. He had no airs about him and could collaborate with anyone and he did. Big stars which he shared the same stage with and young upstarts which he was willing to nurture, a very rare trait for Nigerian musicians of his generation. He was gentle, kind, generous, accommodating, approachable, smart and gifted. He was a good human being first and foremost.
“I am happy I was able to celebrate him here in Nigeria last December but I am also pained because we had just really started to get to work together on projects for what we termed the Tony Allen Afrobeat Legacy Project: Afrobeat meets Afrobeats. We will miss him but his music lives on in our hearts,” he said.