Tony Allen – live at Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris – September 9, 2017 – Radio France Musique –
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More sad news this week – word from Paris last Thursday that legendary drummer Tony Allen had passed away.
Allen was the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s band Africa ’70 from 1968 to 1979. Fela once stated that, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.” He was described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.”
Allen was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He began playing drums at the age of 18, while working as an engineer for a radio station. Allen was influenced by music his father listened to Jùjú, a popular Yoruba music from the 1940s, but also American jazz, and the growing highlife scene in Nigeria and Ghana. Allen worked hard to develop a unique voice on the drums, feverishly studying LPs and magazine articles by Max Roach and Art Blakey, but also revolutionary Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren (later known as Kofi Ghanaba – who developed a highly sought-after sound that mixed tribal Ghanaian drumming with bop – working with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach).
Allen was hired by “Sir” Victor Olaiya to play claves with his highlife band, the Cool Cats. Allen was able to fill the drum set chair when the former Cool Cats drummer left the band. Allen later played with Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers, and the Melody Makers.
n 1964, Fela Kuti invited Allen to audition for a jazz-highlife band he was forming. Kuti and Allen had played together as sidemen in the Lagos circuit. Fela complimented Allen’s unique sound: “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” Thus Allen became an original member of Kuti’s “Koola Lobitos” highlife-jazz band.
In 1969, following a turbulent and educational trip to the United States, Allen served as the musical director of Fela’s band, Africa ’70, which developed a new militant African sound, mixing the heavy groove and universal appeal of soul with jazz, highlife, and the polyrhythmic template of Yoruba conventions. Allen developed a novel style to complement Fela’s new African groove that blended these disparate genres.
Allen recorded more than 30 albums with Fela and Africa ’70. Leaving Africa ’70 in 1979, Allen formed his own group, recording No Discrimination in 1980, and performing in Lagos until emigrating to London in 1984. Later moving to Paris, Allen recorded with King Sunny Adé, Ray Lema and Manu Dibango. Allen recorded N.E.P.A. in 1985.
Post-Fela, Allen developed a hybrid sound, deconstructing and fusing Afrobeat with electronica, dub, R&B, and rap. Allen refers to this synthesis as afrofunk.
Allen returned with a much anticipated new project for his 13th release. Recorded live in Lagos, with a full-sized Afrobeat band, Lagos No Shaking (Lagos is OK) signified Allen’s return to roots Afrobeat after forays into avant-garde electronica hybrids. Lagos No Shaking was released on 13 June 2006.
Tony Allen has left behind a rich and enduring recorded legacy, laying the groundwork for study and inspiration for countless drummers for decades to come.
As tribute, here is a concert performed at The Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris – September 9, 2017 and preserved for posterity by Radio France.