“There would be no Afrobeat without Tony Allen,” said the late great Fela Kuti (1938-1997), leader of the Africa 70—originally Koola Lobitos, later the Nigeria 80. Together he and Allen rose together from their early years in Nigeria’s ‘Highlife” scene to the peaks of global prominence, together they built one of the hardest-hitting and smoothest-swinging big-bands of all time—a band as tight as Ellington’s or Benny Goodman’s, yet as expansive in sound as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis group–and that’s only speaking as far as the jazz aspects of it. There are infinite other angles, as the reader likely knows already.
As weird as Sun Ra and as socially-relevant as James Brown, Fela’s music has only grown in popularity since his death, and the most indispensable component of his singular sound was his drummer, Tony Allen, whose memoir was published last month. His co-author, Michael E. Veal, previously wrote a well-received biography of Fela, so he entered the project already prepared and predisposed to tell Allen’s story with the fidelity it merits.
Tony Oladipo Allen was born in Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos on August 12, 1940—well, that’s what Wikipedia says; Allen declares his birthday as July 20 on page 21. The book’s first 40-plus pages covers that early phase in his career before he linked up with Fela. Both men were highly influenced by jazz, and some of my favorite stuff in the book comes from this early session, where Allen describes the evolution of his own inimitable drum style in the context of drummers who came before—giants like Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Max Roach. This section also covers serves as a nice overview of what the Nigerian music scene was like before Fela’s crew became the dominant band of that era, in the process bringing Nigerian culture into the mainstream for the first time. The pages are peppered with long-forgotten names, and in that sense the authors have really done a service, not just for musicologists but for their country.
His career as a professional musician began around 1960. One of his earliest serious gig was drumming for Sivor Lawson and the Cool Cats when they opened for Louis Armstrong in 1960; he notes the great impression left his Pops’ drummer, Danny Barcelona (1929-2007), who became one of his first of his many friends working in western music. Allen himself would later become a major player in the fusion of African and Euro-American musical concepts, starting with the infamous Fela recordings with Ginger Baker, the former drummer for Cream. Baker lived in Nigeria for the first half of the 1970s, and his collaboration with Allen and Africa 70 became one of the great “percussion discussions” ever put to wax; their 16-minute drum battle (from 1978) is appended to the CD reissue of Fela’s album Live! (Capitol/EMI, 1971).
Personally, my first experience with Tony Allen’s solo material came via the World Music section of the Jacksonville Public Library, downtown. There was a compilation CD of music from Nigeria, and one of the tracks remains my favorite of his: “Get Together”, whose locomotive beat, fat bass lines and vocal harmonies—understated, but resonant—offered an ideal introduction to the man’s work. I still put it on mixes and such, a decade later.
Casual fans may recall the song “Heat”, by Common, an instant-classic from his Like Water For Chocolate album (MCA, 2000); was built around a beat J. Dilla sampled from Allen’s “Asiko”, track one on 1999’s Black Voices.
As it turns out, Allen’s experience extends well before and after his tenure (1968-79) with Africa 70, and this book really helps flesh out that history. The concert in Berlin that yielded the drum battle with Baker in 1978 was also Allen’s last as a member of Africa 70. By that point, the band had undergone significant trauma, much of it focused on the leader himself, who had made powerful enemies with his brazen critiques of Nigeria’s military dictatorship. Only by coincidence was Allen not at Fela’s home (known as the “Kalakuta Republic”) when it was raided by a thousand soldiers of the Nigerian military in 1977; it one of the most brutal examples of state-sponsored suppression of art in the post-war era. Fela was nearly beaten to death, his life only spared by an officer’s intervention, but the compound was burned to the ground along with his studio, his instruments and master-tapes. Worst of all, Fela’s mother was defenestrated through of a second-story window, causing fatal injuries, and one of the soldiers shit on her face afterwards. Neither Fela nor his music were ever the same again, and neither would Tony Allen.
Allen’s final break with Fela comes on page 127, and the remaining 58 pages covers the years after, as the author became an ambassador of Afrobeat and a touring act in great demand around the world. His solo work displays the same inimitable rhythms he pioneered with Fela, but the music itself is quite different; Allen long ago began to fuse his native sounds with the emergent aesthetic of hip-hop resulting in some of the most compelling music of the past 30 years.
There’s really very little, if anything, to complain about here, but for exactitude’s sake, a few quick points. First, this book would’ve benefitted from a few sparse footnotes, offering biographical details of some of the artists Allen mentions in the text. Many of the names will be familiar to casual fans, but a lot of them will be unknown and obscure even to obsessive fans of Afrobeat; in some cases, there is literally no information available about them at all. The book walks us back through the rise and evolution of the music, but footnotes would’ve helped flesh out the narrative and situate Allen’s work more comfortably in its broader context. To that end, while the book has a decent selected discography also could’ve used a sessionography—although that, too, is a minor complaint, since that information is available online, for anyone who might be interested.
All in all, Allen and Veal have combined to tell one of the most remarkable stories of the last 40 years of music history. They have also managed to flesh out the history of a man who has never quite been recognized for the vastness of his influence. Ultimately, Tony Allen deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as legends like Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jackson Jr. and Bernard Purdie—a true innovator, and master of a sound that would simply not exist without his efforts. That is a fact, and hopefully it will become even more apparent as time goes by.