Tony Allen: Remembering Fela’s ex-drummer and legendary Nigerian musician
In popular culture, Tony Allen is regarded as one of the founders of Afrobeat, a genre that also gave birth to the contemporary Afrobeats.
For all he achieved, his impact and longevity, it may not be an adulatory memory, but it also attests to the legacy of what Allen created with the late Fela.
Today we remember Allen who was Fela’s drummer for 15 years and helped reshape the music direction of one of Nigeria’s greatest humans. The great Allen died on Thursday, April 30 in his now-home city of Paris, the cause of death is still unknown, his legacy however indisputable.
Born in Lagos in 1940, Allen taught himself how to play the drum at the age of 18 while working at a radio station. He developed a unique voice on the drums taking influence from a wide range of genres. From Jùjú, to American jazz and the growing highlife scene in Nigeria and Ghana.
He became obsessed with it, taking long hours to study music projects from American jazz greats Max Roach and Art Blake and also Guy Warren (later known as Kofi Ghanaba) the Ghanaian legend.
“I was a nightcrawler who often visited clubs and only looked at the drummers,” Allen told BBC in 2014.
His first foray into professional drumming was with late Nigerian trumpeter and highlife legend ‘Sir’ Victor Olaiya with whom he played the claves with his highlife band, the Cool Cats.
With his towering reputation as a badass drummer, Allen in 1964 met Fela Kuti who at that time was a heavily-influenced Jazz musician.
“When he invited me to come and do Jazz with him, he was convinced because he had already tested four drummers and auditioned them and concluded that there was no good drummer in the country,” Allen told BBC in 2014.
Not convinced with the sound of the music they were making, a trip to Ghana in 1967 inspired them towards a new musical direction, Afrobeat. With a combination of highlife, funk, jazz, salsa, calypso and Juju, Fela with his new political consciousness and with the aid of his drummer Allen churned out records that became extremely popular.
It was Allen’s patterns on the drums that Fela wrote on for the massively successful albums like 1973’s ‘Gentleman’, 1975’s ‘Expensive Shit’ and 1976’s ‘Zombie’ which many consider to be the magnum opus of the legend.
Allen worked with Fela for 15 years before they fell out at the peak of their collective powers. Allen was said to have become cynical over the chaos around his band leader and quit in November 1978 while they were in Germany for the Berlin jazz festival.
“We finished our gig and I told him I was leaving – not to destroy him, or destroy anyone, but just because my services were no longer needed. After that he used two drummers playing my parts separately,” Allen told The UK Guardian in 2014.
Before they parted ways, Fela produced Allen’s first three albums, ‘No Accommodation for Lagos’ in 1979, 1975’s ‘Jealousy’ and 1977’s ‘Progress’.
After leaving Fela, Allen went on to churn out several albums and collaborative projects with a host of musicians as diverse as English rock veteran Damon Albarn and Australian-American popular bassist Flea.
In popular culture, he is regarded as one of the founders of Afrobeat, a genre that also gave birth to the contemporary Afrobeats.
“Not only was he a co-creator but he never stopped at that he moved across the world to teach and inspire different musical cultures about Afrobeat Vibe,” Nigerian singer and songwriter Bankuli told Pulse.
“He will be greatly missed as I believe a lot of new generation artiste would need such a person around to learn more and draw from his wealth of Experience.”
His most recent performance in Nigeria was in December 2019 at a tribute concert in his honour which was held at upscale Reserve Lounge, Victoria Island, Lagos. At that concert, he played alongside Gboyega Adelaja, Empress, Adunni Nefertiti, Temmie Ovwasa and a host of others.
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