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RIP Tony Allen: The self-taught drummer who became the best in the world

The masterful musician helped pioneer Afrobeat and influenced many more global musical movements

  • Jesse Bernard
  • 1 May 2020

Tony Allen’s voice stretches far beyond the sound of his drums. You hear it in every Afrobeat artist that has since followed. You hear it in London today as a new wave of jazz thrives. He was of my grandparents' generation and his music is a legacy for that time in Nigeria. For many of us who grew up in Nigerian households, Tony Allen was the soundtrack to the joyful moments of our childhoods as parents and elders would gather in celebration. And if there ever is one word to sum up what Tony Allen brought to people’s ears: it’s joy. But that isn’t enough to describe someone who changed the course of West African music.

Fela Kuti once told Allen that he was able to sound like four drummers at once. They first began playing together in 1964 around the time Kuti returned to Nigeria from London where he had formed the band Koola Lobitos. Allen later became a founding member of the group's rebirth as Afrika '70, inspired by an increasing interest in activism and frustration with Nigeria' political landscape when the civil war ended in January that year.

There’s even a famous story of James Brown playing Nigeria in 1970 and his arranger carefully studying Fela and his band but with a special focus on Allen’s drumming. He was one of the musicians in the band that needed little direction. Allen would draw on highlife, soul, funk, jazz and traditional African drumming, one of the many reasons he was an integral member and cog within Afrika '70. Allen and Kuti were a prolific duo for years, one that would rival that of MJ and Scottie. It’s difficult to sum up in words alone what Allen brought to the group. Fittingly his own words do the best justice: “Some drummers don’t know what it means to play soft, it’s not in their book,” he said in 2016. “I know I can make my drums bring the house down if I have to. But I know how to make it subtle. You listen to it flowing like a river.

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Born in Lagos in 1940, it’s the story of self-teaching himself and working as an engineer for Lagos radio station in the Fifties that’s inspiring, his parents initially never wanted him to pursue a career in music. Particularly at a time where the country was under British control and in political turmoil that would culminate in the civil war in 1967. Allen saw a life for himself beyond Lagos and the drum would be his ticket out.

Even back then, while growing up listening and being inspired by Jùjú, the Yoruba sound popular when Allen was a child, he would soak it all in. At the same time, Allen was also receiving an education and his inspiration from across the Atlantic from jazz legends such as Dizzie Gillepsie, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. Eventually he would play claves for Victor Olaiya’s Cool Cats band, whom Allen’s 2017 song is named after.

Allen’s detailing of when he quit a job at a club to work with Kuti and how he even handled that situation with grace really hammered home just the kind of musician and artist he was:

“They thought I was joking, but I knew that with him was what I really wanted to achieve as a drummer: be extraordinary whichever way. And I think it’s only him that would let me reach that level. I had to gamble. So I took my salary and resigned. The manager of that club begged me to stay: “Do you want more money? I’ll give you more money.” “No, not a question of money now, it’s a question of future. I’m tired of the band already because it’s stagnant. I don’t see how I can improve in this band.” I told him I just want to be a musician.”

Allen worked closely with Kuti between 1964-1980, but their parting had been a prolonged one. When Allen released his debut solo album 'Jealousy' in 1975, Fela Kuti produced it. “Lagos was too small for me and Fela. It was a small place, and I wanted room to take off without causing competition,” Allen once said. That decision would spur on his move to Europe, eventually settling in Paris via London.

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As Fela Kuti once said, “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.” The statement has never been in doubt but in recent years as Afrobeat continued to thrive, you could hear Allen’s influence reach far and wide beyond. His work would lead him to collaborate with Damon Albarn, Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong, but it was his work with Fela Kuti that brought an unknown name from Lagos to the world.

In 2016, Allen and Moses Boyd hosted a Boiler Room masterclass and it exemplified a passing of the torch between two kindred spirit drummers. However, that moment was also indicative of how much time Tony Allen had for the next generation of drummers and musicians: he would draw people into his orbit no matter what space or pocket of music they sat in.

Even in normal circumstances finding time to mourn can be difficult; and as we ride out this sombre melancholy we’re collectively in with COVID-19, moments of brevity and joy are more important than ever. Tony Allen’s music was joy packaged up and conveyed to us through his drumming. It’s warming to know that until the end, Allen was heavily invested in championing the next generation: “I never get satisfied and I’m still learning from others. The musical world is very spiritual, and I don’t think there’s an end to it. As musicians, it’s our mission to keep going.”

Jesse Bernard is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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