tony allen | the greatest drummer alive...yes we said it

August 12, 2017

words by: Uchenna Ikonne

At the dawn of the nineteen nineties, towards the end of a life in which he personally helped re-route the trajectory of popular music two or three times, Miles Davis contemplated where music was heading next. Western musicians, he opined, would increasingly draw inspiration from trends emerging from the West Indies and Africa. Special citation was given to Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the little-known (in America, at least) bandleader who combined funk, jazz, sex, politics, religion and dark humor into a combustible stew he dubbed Afrobeat. This, Davis declared, was one of the musical genres of the future.

Twenty-three years later, Miles Davis’ future is our present. Fela has been dead for more than a decade and a half, but his legend and influence loom larger every year. For a new generation, the image of him stripped to the waist, arms shot skywards in a double Black Power salute rivals the radical chic iconography of Korda’s heroic portrait of Che Guevara. His catalog, once found only scarcely as bootleg cassettes and expensive import vinyl toted under the arms of the terminally hip, is now remastered and extensively reissued in a variety of mass-market formats. His life story has been immortalized in a long-running, Tony Award-winning Broadway show. His music has inspired enough tribute bands to populate a small weekend festival.

But for all its proliferation, is Afrobeat really moving forward into the future musically? Or are the legions of Fela-philes merely keeping it in a holding pattern, eternally reliving a Fela cultural moment from thirty years ago?

Tony Allen seems to think so.

“I want to look forward to the future,” Allen says. “I want to keep moving forward. I do everything I can to make sure that this music, Afrobeat, continues its evolution.”

Allen occupies a singular place in the Afrobeat pantheon. Like Miles Davis, he has changed the way in which people think about music by the sheer force of his artistry. As Fela’s drummer in various bands from 1964 till 1979, he had a front row view of Kuti’s own evolution from slick-suited post-bop jazzbo to Afro-firebrand, and he remains the one person who can make a legitimate claim to having co-created Afrobeat. His unique, super-polyrhythmic drum patterns giving a slinky backbone to Fela’s byzantine arrangements, Allen functioned more as co-pilot than as flight staff. Kuti, a notorious control freak, jealously guarded his personal vision from extraneous contributions and fined his musicians for the slightest deviation from the notation, but with Allen he opened them up for a more mutual collaboration.

Allen explains the workings of the partnership: “When Fela composes his tunes, he will write the parts for all the instruments and then he will come to me and ask, ‘Allenko, what can you add to this? What are you going to play here?’ And then I’d play different patterns until Fela finds one that grabs him and he will say ‘Yes, that’s it…hold on to that one.’”

Without Tony Allen, there is no Afrobeat.

Allen is proud of his contribution to the development of the genre, and quickly grows irritated when challenged by diehard Fela loyalists such as music critic and longtime Fela confidante Benson Idonije, who claims to have personally witnessed Kuti taking the drumsticks himself to instruct Allen of the rhythm he wanted played.

“Fela himself said, ‘Without Tony Allen, there is no Afrobeat,’” Allen says. “Have you heard Fela say that? If it’s true that Fela taught me how to play the Afrobeat drum pattern, why would he say that? ‘No Tony Allen, no Afrobeat.’ 

“It’s something he said many times, and it’s something I take very seriously. That’s why when I was playing with Fela, I could not afford to be sick for even a night! When I’m sick, no show! So why didn’t Fela go and play the drums himself?” Why didn’t he play the fucking drums himself, or put somebody else in there?”

Laughing, Allen spins into an anecdote to illustrate his key position in Fela’s musical organization, going all the way back to the Lagos jazz-highlife outfit Koola Lobitos in the mid-sixties.

“Several times, I told Fela “Go and get Remi, get Remi Kabaka to stand in for me, or John Bull [Okoh]” Allen reminisces, citing some of the prominent drum maestros of the day. “When I was having ulcer and the doctor told me that I have to chill out for two weeks… Listen. Koola Lobitos did not play, nothing. He couldn’t afford it! That’s when I told him to get Remi or John Bull because these were guys he had played with before. First night, when they did the first show at Kakadu Night Club, it was a disaster.

“Fela drove down to my house at one o’clock in the morning to drag me out of my sickbed and tell me that I have to come. I have to get on stage. I said, 'What about Remi and John Bull?' He said, 'He can’t do it! He can’t!' They fuck up his music! So it was then I knew that I could never afford not to be able to play, because when I can’t play, then Fela can’t play.”

“And then when Fela started having doubles, stand-ins for all the instrumentalists, I asked him, ‘Where’s my apprentice? Where’s my double?’ He said it’s impossible to find someone else to imitate my style! And you can see what happened when I left the band… what happened?”

(What happened was that after Allen’s exit in 1979 due to disputes over money and credit, the propulsive rhythmic fire of Fela’s music disappeared, replaced by a more downbeat, measured and languid tempo. Seemingly in recognition of the loss of the -beat that defined Afrobeat, Fela renounced the Afrobeat tag and rechristened his sound with the less exciting appellation “Classical African Music.”)

“If Fela was teaching me how to play the drums as people want to say, why didn’t he just teach someone else to play the same way after I was gone?” Allen concludes.

As much as Tony Allen passionately defends the legacy of his achievements, he professes a mild boredom with revisiting what he views as ancient history.

“I don’t like to talk to much about the past. That’s the reason why I wrote my book [Tony Allen: The Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, co-written with Michael Veal, Duke University Press] so that anybody can go and read about all that stuff. But for me, I am looking forward.”

His progressive stance extends even to the playing of Afrobeat, which he feels has become too conservative, too beholden to Fela’s unique voice and viewpoints.

“Afrobeat is not supposed to be played exactly like Fela played it,” Allen says. “It is a music and a movement. Anybody can play it the way it moves them.” 

My idea of my music is me playing live my hands and my feet moving to create the patterns.

Over the last fifteen years, Allen has found himself moved to record new permutations of Afrobeat with electronic music producers, with rock icons like Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon, with French pop eccentric Sebastien Tellier, with reggae guitar legend Ernest Ranglin and neo-funkster Amp Fiddler and a host of other eccentric artists. The challenge that continues to motivate him is to find new contexts into which to insert his Afrobeat drum patterns, and never looking backwards.

“One thing I can tell you,” Allen says, “I’ve never tried to touch any track of what I played with Fela, or to play cover songs. The only time I’ve done that is when I’ve played with these young guys, these new Afrobeat bands that have invited me to sit in with them. They like to play a lot of Fela’s music, and when they play it, I play it with them. But I never play that old stuff on my own, in my own band.”

But there are still some frontiers Allen is not willing to cross: “I have no interest in drum programming,” he says. “My idea of my music is me playing live my hands and my feet moving to create the patterns. I don’t buy the programming business; I think it’s for amateurs. The beat sounds too clean, you know?”

Allen remains optimistic about the future of the music he helped bring into existence and is delighted to see the number of bands playing Afrobeat multiplying worldwide. “It’s great that so many of them are playing Afrobeat, but it’s still not enough because we can still count them. When we can’t count the number of bands that play Afrobeat in the world, then we will know that Afrobeat is truly established.”

Ironically, Allen’s optimism reaches its limit when the subject comes to Afrobeat’s future in the land of its birth.

“Forget about Nigeria!” he barks. “Please don’t even talk about Nigeria at all when it comes to Afrobeat! When we talked about Afrobeat and Nigeria, it came from there, but it’s gone now. They don’t have it. And they won’t have it. Because they don’t want to have it. When Nigeria embraces Afrobeat, when they’ll have it again… is when it is imported back from other parts of the world that have embraced it."

“But all I can say is that I am trying my best to make sure that this music stays.”

For more on Tony Allen, go to his official Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.