Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tony Allen

Tony Allen was the drummer and musical director for Fela Kuti, long acknowledged as Africa’s finest kit drummer and the co-creator of Afrobeat - the hard driving, James Brown funk-infused, and politically engaged style which became such a dominant force in African music.

Allen was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1940 and taught himself to play by studying records made by jazz drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. He was working as a professional musician in Lagos when he met Kuti in 1964. They started the legendary Koola Lobitos in 1965, which heralded the birth of afrobeat. According to Allen, the music started out so complex and full of changes that the audience didn’t understand what they were hearing. “In five minutes we’d use like five time signatures. It was just too complicated for the audience. They couldn’t understand what was happening we decided to simplify things, giving each song two hook lines and a straightforward arrangement so that people wanted to dance.” A few years later, at the urging of Bootsy Collins and other members of James Brown's band who they met on tour, Kuti and Allen simplified things further. “One idea, one song” became the Afrobeat paradigm.

In 1969, Koola Lobitos made an extended visit to the US where Allen and Kuti were exposed to such people as Malcolm X, Angela Davis, the Last Poets, Stokeley Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver, all of whose thinking played some part in the development of Afrobeat's political philosophy, then returned to Nigeria where the band became "Africa 70" with Allen as musical director and Kuti as the incendiary lyricist.

Allen stayed with Kuti until 1980, playing on all Afrika 70’s albums, including the classic records that became documents of post-colonial Nigeria's increasingly bloody conflicts - among them 'Expensive Shit', 'Zombie', 'Kalakuta Show', 'Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana', and 'Sorrow Tears And Blood.' The band enjoyed massive popularity in Nigeria and West Africa, but were repeatedly subject to harassment and physical attacks from the army and the police.

By the late 70's Allen was exhausted from the violence and Kuti's ever-growing touring entourage, and he parted on good terms after a final studio collaboration with Kuti and vibraphonist Roy Ayers, 'Africa Centre Of The World.' In 1984 he left Lagos for Paris, where he still lives with his family.

Throughout the 80's and 90's Allen collaborated with dozens of artists including Groove Armada, Air, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Manu Dibango, Grace Jones and Damon Albarn. Allen released his most recent album Secret Agent in April to strong reviews and a great compilation of Allen's myriad collaborations called Lagos Shake was released last year.

Tony Allen is currently on a BRIEF North American tour with his 10 piece Afrobeat Orchestra, making just 8 stops before heading home to Paris, one of which happens to be at Snoqualmie Casino outside Seattle on June 19. Tickets available here.

A terrific video from the new album below, and a more complete biography of Allen here.


Märy said...

Love Afrobeat and great piece!

Märy said...

oh, and did you go to the show? Man, I would have loved to go!