It was 1964. Lagos, Nigeria was a densely populated metropolis, giving birth to a wide range of African music. This was before the civil war, when the city was experiencing an influx of new residents who introduced music that differed in style and purpose. As various cultural groups gathered, an environment marked by new instruments, patterns of movement and cadences melded together. Externally, African music varies in ideological and social perspective, as well as in harmony and instrumentation.
However, as different as respective forms may be, shared themes of spirituality and national identity are pronounced in each musical form. The dispersion of music that emanated from Lagos at this time connected neighbor and brethren, creating influential techniques and distinctive sounds that would make Lagos a hub of explosive, new music. It became a site of intersections that produced innovations that simultaneously held onto various strands of African traditions.
Born in Lagos, 1940, the ambassador of Afrobeat, Tony Oladipo Allen, documents the momentous ‘60s in his unique patterns. Through drumming, Allen’s compositions reflect Africa’s mixed heritage, stemming from the eastern terrains of the Igbo population to the western mass of Yoruba, and intermixing British military drumming with the free fusion of American jazz. But beyond his regional lineage, Allen paved the way for world MUSIC (IT’S A GENRE) enthusiasts to come. In retrospect, he created a groove that was highly imitated, but never replicated.
During his impressionable, young adult years, Allen was selected by Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya to play the claves in a West African highlife band, the Cool Cats. Soon after, he picked up the drums; as his percussive palette grew, he contributed as a drummer to other groups like The Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers and the Melody Makers. His reputation burgeoned throughout Nigeria; and so, he was hand-picked by the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti as a percussionist for his new band, Koola Lobitos. Together, they embarked upon a fifteen-year relationship, giving birth to Afrobeat, where Allen served as drummer and musical director of Fela’s renamed band, Africa 70 (from 1968-79).
While Fela was clearly passionate about raising awareness of injustices – he used Afrobeat to spearhead a politically charged movement, utilizing his voice to raise contention and polemically address issues against the Nigerian government – Allen also cultivated music in other ways. “Afrobeat is simply music,” Allen says, “but Fela made it [the music] political to send a message. Every type of music can create a sense of consciousness and translate it differently to the people.” Allen’s own proclivity rested on synthesizing music into organic melodies. Early on, Allen made an impression on an international front, gaining universal recognition from his peers. Some even speculate that James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, ‘borrowed’ musical arrangements from Allen. His danceable, up-beat measures were recorded on over 30 albums with Fela and Africa 70, all of which “consisted of different roots – a mixture of verities that contain Afrobeat, written 4/4,” Allen adds.
Tony Allen’s pristine beat-matching and infallible drumming skills have saturated the music scene- just as all great legends have. Though small in stature, Allen is contrastingly bold and relentless on the drums. His fluid and charismatic patterns incorporate “the cymbals, the high-hat, one ride and one crash, along with the bass drum and the floor tom,” playing all “four limbs independently of each other.” The influence of jazz on Afrobeat is evident- such reputable musicians as Max Roach, and his kinetic spirit are presented through out Allen’s work. As he describes, his style comes from his blood. And from those veins, he produced music that gave nourishment first to Fela’s electrifying vocals, and now, to many others.
After a long-lived career with Fela, Allen decided to begin a more solitary path. He made a home in Paris, where he has resided for many years and continues to do so. Post Fela, Allen released a slew of albums and collaborated on a series of projects. From No Discrimination to Lagos No Shaking, undoubtedly, Allen used strains of Afrobeat in his work, but in forming his own outfit “Afro Messengers” (former members of “African 70”), Allen sculpted a distinctive sound, one that coupled dub-like synths with African roots rhythms, which he described as Afrofunk.
Allen, who reveals his “need to push further and explore new musical” avenues, forged on into different genres, some of which include electronic and R&B. And Allen affirms that he’s “the type of person that would get bored” if he did not experiment continually. He is keen on “cross-pollinating” music, confirming that he is not “somebody that falls into a particular group.” “When I get on the drums, I try and do something I never have done before. Otherwise, I will keep on repeating myself,” he says.
After Damon Albarn of Blur cited Allen in its hit single “Music is My Radar,” Allen was re-introduced to the current music scene and has since played alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Queen, and the Chicago-based, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Musicians have been eager to get Allen into the studio, while he collaborates on projects and works alongside notable artists ranging from indie vocalist Charlotte Gainsbourg to Parisian singer Sébastien Tellier and soul chanteuse Zap Mama. He continues to be an inspiration to producers like Wajeed, who has used Allen’s euphonic sensibilities and weaved them into brilliant remixes.
I, too, was fortunate enough to experience Tony Allen live. At the Brasil in Time: Batucada com Discos, a documentary/live show curated by photographer/director B+, amongst a troupe of musicians, Allen passionately played the drums. Audience members could feel the synergy of superb musicianship and collectively, the artists were championed with proper recognition. Along with the showcase of the recent Broadway hit “FELA!” and the restoration of African music, Afrobeat and its originators, Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, are finally being venerated.
Allen pays homage to Africa, the land that speared his musical career, and the people who have supported him along the way. He concludes, “I would like to share my love of music and my gift to everybody. I do not want to disappoint my audience – I simply want them to return home with something fresh, and invigorating in mind, something I was given at an early age.”
Check out his myspace page to catch more of his project with Jimi Tenor at: http://www.myspace.com/tonyallenafrobeat