Tony Allen: "Perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived"
We take a look at the career of the Afrobeat creator ahead of his Deloitte Ignite performance.
“Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat” and “perhaps the greatest drummer whoever lived”. Praise indeed from two of the 20th century’s most famous musicians, Fela Kuti and Brian Eno respectively.
Legendary drummer and composer Tony Allen will perform at the Royal Opera House as part of Yinka Shonibare’s Africa-themed Deloitte Ignite festival, 50 years into a career that shows no signs of slowing down.
Tony rose to prominence in the mid -1960s alongside fellow Nigerian Fela Kuti as a pioneer of Afrobeat, a blend of jazz, traditional Yoruba and high life music. The self-taught drummer began to play aged 18 and devoured American music by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker alongside contemporary African tracks. The young Tony Allen began playing claves (sticks) before being promoted to the drum stool in Victor Olaiya’s highlife act, the Cool Cats.
As part of Kuti’s Africa ’70, Tony soon found fame for his impressive percussion technique – drumming in a different time signature with each of his four limbs. “I like to extract the beat that’s there and then try lots of different beats and different ways of drumming around it. That’s the only way not to get bored,” he told world music magazine Songlines.
Tony is quick to address the misconception that James Brown’s visit to Lagos in 1970 was a turning point for the way African musicians played, “What really happened was that his musicians came to our club to see us every night after their show. The truth is that James Brown’s band learned more from African musicians than we learned from James Brown.”
His work with Fela Kuti and Africa ’70 saw him record over thirty albums before leaving the band in 1979 to pursue a successful solo career. After his departure, Fela needed four drummers to replace him for live performances: such was his rhythmic ferocity behind the drum kit.
It was at this time that he developed Afrofunk, a hybrid of Afrobeat, electronica and rap. He rejects this label however, preferring to see the sound as a development of Afrobeat – an experiment.
Throughout his solo career, Tony has shown a willingness to broaden his musical palette as well as keeping alive the spirit of Afrobeat. He’s collaborated with a number of musicians around the world including Blur frontman Damon Albarn, with whom he will perform at Deloitte Ignite. The duo recorded the album The Good, the Bad & the Queen in 2007 as one half of a supergroup also featuring Simon Tong of The Verve and Paul Simonon of The Clash. Since then Allen and Albarn have also teamed up with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea under the name Rocket Juice & the Moon.
At 72, Tony shows no time of letting up. He remains politicized, calling on the Nigerian government to combat poverty and unemployment. “I don’t see Nigerians benefiting from all the oil they have,” he told Reuters in 2008, “this government needs to create a social movement. It must go to the poor areas and ask people what their needs are.”
On the future his plans are clear, “I just want to move forward. I kept on doing what I wanted to do – exploring and learning more.”
One thing is for sure, whatever sonic path he treads at the Royal Opera House on Friday 31 August, the Deloitte Ignite audience are in for a treat.