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Tony Allen, and his rhythms that underpinned Afrobeat

No doubt, Afrobeat has given Nigerian music an identity globally, moving it from the general world music category to a genre of its own like reggae and others.

Of course, Afrobeat is also synonymous to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late legendary music maestro, who pioneered the exciting music genre that spotlights African heritage, amid warm beats, enthralling dance performances and rhythms infused with message.

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While Fela’s contributed immensely to the popularity of Afrobeat genre, there are others who are also part of the pioneer team because of their individual and collective contributions.

One of such pioneers is Tony Oladipo Allen, an ace drummer, composer and songwriter.

Allen, who will turn 80 years this August, is Afrobeat living legend and former drummer of Fela Kuti.

Born in 1940 in Lagos, the ace drummer who lives in Paris is still sought after by his European fans, who he delights with Afrobeat, jazz and world music. As the drummer and musical director of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s band Africa ‘70 from 1968 to 1979, Allen was one of the primary co-founders of the genre of Afrobeat music and Fela once stated that, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat”. He has also been described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.

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Aside being the inventor of the rhythms that underpinned Afrobeat, Allen recorded more than 30 albums with Fela and Africa ‘70, as well as, three solo recordings: Jealousy (‘75), Progress (‘77), No Accommodation For Lagos (‘79) before leaving Africa ‘70 in 1979 in search of his own sound. In 1980, he formed No Discrimination, his own group. He recorded and performing in Lagos until emigrating to London in 1984, then later moved to Paris where currently lives.

In a bid to find his own sound after leaving Fela, Allen developed a hybrid sound, deconstructing and fusing Afrobeat with electronica, dub, R&B, and rap. He refers to this synthesis as afrofunk, which some upcoming musicians today claim as their style.

While in the country, Allen was hired by many musicians to ensure great sounds, especially Victor Olaiya to play claves with his highlife band, the Cool Cats. He also played with numerous local and international artistes to critical world acclaim such as Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers, and the Melody Maker.

Trailing his story, the self-taught musician began playing a drum kit at the age of 18, while working as an engineer for a Nigerian radio station. Influenced by the music his father listened to including Juju and also American jazz, and the growing highlife scene in Nigeria and Ghana, Tony 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).

In 1964, Fela Kuti invited Allen to audition for a jazz-highlife band he was forming as they had played together as sidemen in the Lagos circuit. Allen became an original member of Fela’s ‘Koola Lobitos’ highlife-jazz band. In 1969, following a turbulent and educational trip to the United States, Fela and the newly renamed Africa ‘70 band 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.

He has always been very busy, touring and performing across the world from his Paris base. In 2017, he collaborated with Malian singer Oumou Sangaré for the track “Yere faga” from her album Mogoya, and recorded E.P. Tomorrow Comes The Harvest with Techno DJ Jeff Mills in 2018.

In 2019, filmmaker Opiyo Okeyo released the documentary film Birth of Afrobeat about Allen’s life in music.

Recently, on December 29, 2019, Allen was honoured with an Afrobeat Tribute Concert in Lagos, which was organized by Inspiro Productions, the organizers of Lagos Jazz Festival.

At the concert, the legendary drummer, who flew in from Paris, paled alongside Gboyega Adelaja (late Hugh Masekela’s keyboardist), Empress, Adunni Nefertiti, Temmie Ovwasa and a host of others.

Ayoola Sadare, CEO, Inspiro Productions, described Allen as a worthy cultural ambassador of Nigerian-african music hence the tribute concert held in recognition of the impact Afrobeat, which his co-created, is making globally.

“In Europe and on the global music scene, he is still very active. His impact on Afrobeat, Jazz and World music is undeniable”, Sadare explained at the tribute concert.

His career and life story have been documented in his 2013 autobiography Tony Allen: Master Drummer of Afrobeat, co-written with author/musician Michael E. Veal, who previously wrote a comprehensive biography of Fela Kuti.

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