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Tony Allen 1940–2020

One of the world's most influential drummers—whether playing alongside Fela Kuti or paying tribute to Art Blakey—dies at 79

Tony Allen (photo by Sharonne Cohen)
Tony Allen at the 2017 Montreal Jazz Festival (photo by Sharonne Cohen)

Tony Allen, an innovative and astonishingly adept drummer who was one of the creators of Afrobeat, died April 29 at Georges-Pompidou European Hospital in Paris, France. He was 79.

His death was announced by his longtime manager, Eric Trosset, who said that Allen (a resident of Paris) had suffered an aneurysm in his aorta and been rushed to the hospital on the afternoon of the 29th. He passed away there later in the evening.

The Nigerian-born Allen’s prowess on the drum kit is difficult to overstate: It was such that when he left the band of fellow Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti in 1979, Kuti was forced to hire four drummers in order to replicate Allen’s polyrhythms. Indeed, Allen often sounded like several different people playing at once. On Kuti recordings such as Gentleman (1973) and Zombie (1977)—and no less on his 2017 masterwork for Blue Note Records, The Source— he might keep the pulse on the kick drum, accent it on the hi-hat, and lay down additional cross-rhythms on his snare and cowbell. Musician and producer Brian Eno called him “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.”

Allen’s greatness was not limited to his technical skill, however. He was the inventor of the Afrobeat rhythm, fusing the grooves of West African popular styles like highlife, Yoruban folk, and traditional percussion with jazz, both American bebop and its African variants. “Without Tony Allen,” said Kuti, “there would be no Afrobeat.”

Later a singer himself, Allen echoed Kuti’s fiery political rhetoric, though he was wary of the way it became synonymous with the Afrobeat aesthetic. “I’ve sung about things wrong in my country, I’ve sung about things wrong in different parts,” he told National Public Radio in 2010. “But sometimes I think we’ve said enough.”

Tony Alidapo Allen was born August 12, 1940 in Lagos, Nigeria. His first professional inclination was toward electronics, and at 18 he was working as an engineer for a radio station in Lagos. However, he was also listening to music: juju, a popular Nigerian style derived from Yoruba rhythms; highlife, a Ghanaian pop music that was conquering West Africa; and American jazz. Soon he began teaching himself to play drums, giving close study to the records of Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Philly Joe Jones as well as of the Afrojazz drummer Guy Warren. He told his horrified parents that he was leaving electronics to become a musician.

In 1960, Allen joined the highlife band Victor Olaiya and the Cool Cats as a percussionist, eventually taking over the drum chair before the band broke up in 1961. He then moved through several highlife outfits on the Lagos circuit, including the Western Toppers Highlife Band—with whom he was playing in 1964 when he met saxophonist and Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation radio producer Fela Kuti. Kuti asked Allen to join a jazz quartet that broadcasted weekly on NBC radio.

In 1965, the saxophonist had a new idea—to fuse jazz with highlife—and re-formed his old highlife band Koola Lobitos with himself and Allen at the center. While the sound was deliberately revolutionary, Kuti at first called it by the pedestrian name of highlife-jazz; once other styles, such as Afro-Cuban salsa, Caribbean calypso, and American funk and R&B became parts of the mix, he gave it the more nationalistic name of Afrobeat and the band was renamed Africa ’70. Allen was its rhythmic visionary and, at one point, musical director.

In 1979, after 32 albums with Kuti, Allen left the band in acrimony over its finances, as well as tensions related to the band’s radical politics. He had already established himself as a solo performer with his 1975 album Jealousy, and now formed his own band, the Afro Messengers (featuring members of Africa ’70 who had left along with him).

When he moved to Europe—first to London in 1984, then to Paris a year later—he formed another group, Afrobeat 2000, but by the 1990s he began to drift away from pure Afrobeat, incorporating elements of dub reggae and the nascent forms of hip-hop and electronic dance music that were then permeating western Europe. This approach, which Allen called “Afrofunk,” culminated in 1999 with his Black Voices project. He was also a prolific session musician, including work with Eno, Manu Dibango, King Sunny Adé, and the disco-swing hybrid Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

In the 21st century Allen began making his way back toward the original Afrobeat sound, finally making a complete return with his much-heralded 2006 album Lagos No Shaking, recorded live in the Nigerian metropolis. He did not abandon his previous hybrid aesthetic, however; that same year he joined The Good, the Bad & the Queen, a unique supergroup with former Clash bassist Paul Simonon and Damon Albarn, formerly of the Britpop band Blur.

Allen delved back into his jazz roots in the late 2010s, albeit filtered through his own lens: his two 2017 recordings for Blue Note, A Tribute to Art Blakey and The Source, were both heavily soaked in Afrobeat rhythms, with the former featuring versions of “Moanin’” and “A Night in Tunisia” in Allen’s inimitable idiom.

His final release, last month’s Rejoice, was a 2010 session with the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.