Tony Allen: Jack of All Parades

The celebrated Nigerian drummer and co-creator of Afrobeat delves deeper into jazz with tributes to his heroes Art Blakey and Tony Williams

Tony Allen (center) prepares for liftoff at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival as Herlin Riley (left) and others watch the onstage action

Above: Tony Allen (center) prepares for liftoff at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival as Herlin Riley (left) and others watch the onstage action. Photo: Alan Nahigian.

“I’m a half-caste,” Tony Allen says in his trailer dressing room at the Newport Jazz Festival. “Do you know that word, ‘half-caste?’ My father was Nigerian, and my mother was Ghanaian; they spoke different languages and came from different cultures. So I had a mixture of influences from the start.”

His band has just finished its set, and the drummer has changed out of his black porkpie hat and black shirt with red flowers into a gray baseball cap and black Zildjian T-shirt. At 78, the man who altered African music forever by co-founding the Afrobeat style with Fela Kuti moves deliberately and measures his words before he speaks. He protests that he doesn’t know how to explain his music—neither his landmark work with Kuti nor his dance-trance solo records nor his recent straight-ahead jazz—he just plays it. But he’s wrong; he proves quite articulate on the subject.

He explains, for example, how he transformed his half-caste status from a liability into an asset. In the Nigerian city of Lagos, where he grew up, each of the nation’s many tribes has its own neighborhood, and each neighborhood sponsors its own Christmas parade. Because the young Allen didn’t belong to any one tribe, he felt free to follow every procession.

“Every Christmas Day, I would hear 20 different ethnic rhythms,” he remembers. “I’d follow one parade for two blocks, then follow another parade. Even the Muslims celebrated Christmas with us. If I were a stagnant person, I would have stayed with just one culture and never have changed my way. But I couldn’t do that, because that would mean I’d stop learning, and I enjoy learning.”

By the time he was a teenager, he had a working knowledge of rural West African village music in dozens of variations. That music was almost always played with drums and voices alone. The challenge was to translate what the three or four drummers in each village were playing to a single drum kit in the urban dance bands that brought guitars and horns into the mix. These highlife bands ruled the live music scene along the West African coast, and Allen with his extensive vocabulary of rhythmic patterns soon became a star in that world. But he wasn’t satisfied.

“I get bored listening to the same thing again and again,” he says. “I knew that the drummers were doing something wrong, because they didn’t use the hi-hat pedal, only the bass drum pedal. It was like trying to ride a bicycle using only one pedal. Why was that? Because they didn’t know what it was there for. So I went looking for a solution, and in an issue of DownBeat I found two pages of Max Roach teaching how to use the open hi-hat sound and the closed hi-hat sound.”

This was long before videos, of course, and American musicians rarely made it to Nigeria. But Allen was sharp enough to translate the magazine article into a new kind of highlife rhythm, not pure jazz but unlike any other highlife drumming around. Suddenly, he was the most distinctive drummer in West Africa. And he hadn’t even met Kuti yet.

“In 1960,” he explains, “I left my job and said, ‘It’s drums I want to play.’ I told myself, ‘If you want to play like a professional, you should listen to the professionals.’ The first one I heard was Gene Krupa, who I heard on NBC [the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation] and VOA [the Voice of America]. I liked him and tried to play like him.

“Then Blue Note records started coming to the radio, and I heard Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. This was drumming that touched me deep in my roots as an African. This was drumming that opened my mind and exercised my brain waves. I said, ‘How many guys are playing on this record? Two? Three?’ They said it was only one guy. I had to study those records and figure out how he did it. This was beyond highlife, which is music for dancing at parties; this was talking to me on a deeper level.”

Tony Allen performing at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Alan Nahigian)
Tony Allen performing at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Alan Nahigian)

The Art in His Style
Jazz never stopped talking to Allen, and he never stopped responding to jazz. When he joined Kuti’s jazz band Koola Lobitos in 1964, it was Allen’s fusion of highlife and jazz drumming that defined the new Afrobeat sound as much as Kuti’s singing and horn playing. The key was this: Allen viewed everything he learned not as a substitution for what he already knew but as an addition to it. His new love for Blakey didn’t replace his old love for highlife; it supplemented it.

Last year Allen finally moved that Blakey influence from the background of his music to the foreground. The Nigerian had signed with his hero’s old label, Blue Note Records, and after years of making vocal records he finally recorded an instrumental jazz album, The Source. The influence was so obvious that, in the midst of those Paris sessions, Allen also recorded a four-song EP, A Tribute to Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, which was released first as a teaser for the album.

“I didn’t want to sing anymore,” Allen says of his move to Blue Note. “I wanted to do some albums where the horns take over the singing. On the Blakey records, the horns handle the melody; I wanted to do that. When I started to compose the music, I didn’t preview it in my mind; I just sat down at the drums and played until I created some things that hadn’t been there before. Only then did I move to the keyboard to write the bass part, the guitar part, the keyboard part, the horn parts.”

“The tribute made sense,” says Blue Note president Don Was. “You can trace both Art’s and Tony’s roots way back to the African traditions of rhythm as a means of mass communication. Jazz telegraphs a message relating to the many aspects of freedom; it doesn’t matter if it’s Blakey’s ‘Free for All’ or Fela’s ‘Black President.’ It’s an expression so eloquent and universal that, although spoken primarily in an African musical dialect, it’s understood all over the world. It was profoundly understood by the founders of Blue Note, who escaped oppression and came to this country from Germany in 1939 in pursuit of freedom and jazz. These themes have underpinned Blue Note’s greatest releases over the last 80 years.”

At Newport, Allen leads a quintet in the classic Jazz Messengers format: saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums. They play three songs from The Source, two from the Blakey tribute, and one new number. As in the Jazz Messengers, the horn section (Roman Filiú on tenor and alto and Albert Leusink on trumpet) play the vocal-like chants of the head, while the rhythm section (Allen, bassist Mathias Allamane, and keyboardist Jean-Philippe Dary) rumble forward with a beat that’s both swinging and funky.

Allen controls everything from his drum stool. He chokes up on his sticks so the bottom two inches extend beyond his fists. Like Blakey and West Africa’s village drummers, Allen emphasizes the lower register of the kit, minimizing his use of cymbals and maximizing his use of the earthy toms and kick drum. He doesn’t play beats so much as he plays bar-long phrases, combinations conceived as a single thought. This provides a fluidity to his playing that surges and ebbs through his remarkable use of dynamics.

“Dynamics are not easy for drummers,” he says. “They know they have to hit the drum, but their teachers forget to teach them about nuances, about how to play soft. Without that, you don’t have dynamics. I don’t beat my drums; I caress them. If you beat somebody up, they can’t be your friend; they’ll run away from you. If you beat up your wife, she’ll be your enemy even if she stays with you. But if you caress her every time you come back from work, she’ll be your everlasting friend.”

“His approach at Newport was pretty consistent with the early Afrobeat work,” says Was, who watched the entire set from the wings and from beneath his black cowboy hat. “Fela’s band had a phalanx of percussionists who freed Tony from the more prosaic responsibilities that keep the music percolating. This enabled him to both go exploring and to play melodically; he’s actually singing on the drums. The thing that’s incredible about the quintet is that, even without the aid of other percussionists, he’s propelling the groove forward while still playing in the most unconventional spots. He’s playing in all of the spaces that drummers never fill and, conversely, leaving all of the conventional spots wide open.”

The cover of Tony Allen's <I>Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers</I>
The cover of Tony Allen’s Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Afrobeat and Beyond
Kuti became infatuated with American hard bop at the same time as Allen. In 1963, Kuti returned home to Lagos after a five-year stay in London, where he had studied music as a trumpeter, and got a job disc-jockeying for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He soon decided that rather than play records, he would form a band that could play the same music live. There was one problem: He couldn’t find the right drummer. Finally someone suggested he call Tony Allen in for an audition.

“He took his first four [bars] and I took my first four,” Allen explained in a 2007 lecture in Toronto, “and then he went for his second four, and I took my second four, and he said: ‘Stop! Where did you learn your drumming? Did you study in the States? Did you study in England?’ And I said: ‘No, I did everything here.’ And he says: ‘It’s incredible. With the style you play, one wouldn’t even need a percussionist.’”

The two men played jazz for a while, but Kuti soon grew envious of the highlife bandleaders who were living in big houses and driving big cars. So he expanded his jazz quartet into a bigger dance band with guitar, horns, and percussion. But it didn’t sound like the other highlife ensembles, because Kuti sang about topics other than romance and lust and because Allen played the drums with a flexibility that kept the music ever-shifting, always moving forward. That enabled Kuti’s band, eventually renamed Afrika ’70, to extend songs to 15 or 20 minutes on records and 25 or 30 minutes on stage.

When the first Afrika ’70 recordings made their way to Europe in the early ’70s, they had a tremendous impact, especially in African and Caribbean neighborhoods. Jean-Philippe Dary, Allen’s keyboardist for the past 20 years, was a young kid living near St. Tropez in France when he first heard Allen and Kuti.

“It was huge,” he remembers. “It was crazy; we’d never heard music like that. All the funky music we knew was short, like singles, but these long tracks just kept going and going and put you in a trance. But they never got boring, because it was both 4/4 and 6/8 at the same time. When the emphasis moved, the music seemed to go from one to the other. And the afterbeat was not where it was supposed to be. It used to be on the two and four, but now it might be on the one and three or anywhere.”

“The village bands played those rhythms with three or four hand drummers,” adds trumpeter Leusink, “but Tony was the first to do it on a single drum kit. It was like a bouncing ball the way the groove moved around. The dynamics too were new; they would be really soft and then the horns would come in and the whole band would explode.”

Learning to play in Allen’s band requires an adjustment, Dary admits, but the drummer is a patient bandleader. He takes his time to “put you in the vibe,” and only when you’re comfortable does he start to push you.

“You have two rhythms going at once,” Dary explains, “and they mesh only if you play them right. To do that, you always have to know where the one is—and it’s not always obvious. But if you feel the vibe and let it carry you, you can feel the others in the band and how all the pieces fit together. To have those drums behind you makes it possible; you feel as if you have wings.”

Dary played on both The Source and the Blakey tribute as well as Allen’s new tribute to Tony Williams. The latter recording is being released as part of Blue Note Review: Volume Two — Spirit & Time, the second in a series of subscription boxed sets from the label. Focusing on material from the five solo albums that Williams released for Blue Note between 1986 and 1992, Spirit & Time is performed by current Blue Note drummers, such as Brian Blade, Kendrick Scott, Eric Harland, and Allen.

Allen tackles “City of Lights” from Williams’ 1989 Native Heart. It opens with an unaccompanied, lightly played drum shuffle before Dary’s keyboard riff brings in a dance beat. But the rippling pulse of Allen’s drumming continues, keeping the bottom of the song unpredictable and keeping any dancers dizzy from guessing where the accent might fall next.

“After Art Blakey and Max Roach,” Allen says, “Tony Williams was a big influence. He had a completely different style. I listened to the jazz guys, the drummers from the villages, and the highlife groups in the city; I learned from them all. But in the end, I just wanted to be myself.”

The cover of <I>Blue Note Review Vol. 2: Spirit & Time</I>, featuring Tony Allen's version of Tony Williams' "City of Lights"
The cover of Blue Note Review Vol. 2: Spirit & Time, featuring Tony Allen’s version of Tony Williams’ “City of Lights”

Looking Ahead
Now that he’s released the instrumental jazz album he always wanted to make, the always-restless Allen is ready to move on to the next project. This winter will see the second release from the British supergroup the Good, the Bad & the Queen, featuring Allen, Blur’s Damon Albarn, the Clash’s Paul Simonon, and the Verve’s Simon Tong, this time with Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s longtime right-hand man, as producer.

Allen’s next album, due this fall, will be Tomorrow Comes the Harvest, a trio collaboration with Dary and electronica pioneer Jeff Mills. The three musicians had met in Paris, and Allen was intrigued to find out if he could interact with a drum machine the same way he interacts with a guitarist or horn player. On the recording, the contrast between Allen’s miked drums and Mills’ direct-input machine makes the give-and-take easy to follow. Mills made this more interesting by creating a new way to handle his Roland TR-909.

“I developed a way of playing the drum machine that could meet the way Tony plays the drums,” Mills says, “a way of actually playing the drum machine, not just programming it to play a pattern. Using the stop/start buttons on the machine, I can improvise almost the same way a drummer would create accents, turnarounds, breaks, etc. By sliding the volume faders, I can play the drum sounds with the same inflection of a drummer. It’s not an easy task to do this because every sound you hear requires two movements, but I’ve learned to handle the machine to suit my character.”

“I love to face challenges,” Allen says. “I thought playing with a machine would be a good challenge. When I’m doing a project, I’m doing it. When I’m done, it’s gone from my mind, and I’m ready for the next one.” JT