Dressed all in black, with a cap to match, Tony Allen looks sharp but is smaller than I expected. Perhaps that’s because his drumming is so powerful – and the kinetic grooves that he creates seem so much larger than life – that it leads you to assume that he would be a big, burly man with bulging muscles. Not so. His hands, too, when we shake each other’s on greeting in a trendy London bar, surprise me – they’re soft and gentle and not, as some might assume, rough and calloused from almost sixty years of non-stop drumming. Evidently, then, Tony Allen is a man who shatters preconceptions. He sits opposite me exuding the cool demeanour of a benign guru and though he’s 77, you wouldn’t guess it from looking at his skin, which is ebony smooth and seems to belong to a much younger man. Though softly spoken – you can’t ever imagine him shouting or working himself into a lather – he is not at all diffident, and though he likes to talk at length, he only occasionally grows animated with passion.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Allen is Afrobeat’s undisputed master drummer. He rose to fame in the 1970s as the percussion dynamo driving Fela Kuti’s legendary Africa ’70 band, a huge ensemble that became the trailblazers for a style of music called Afrobeat, a unique musical hybrid that blended the vocabulary and polyrhythms of African highlife music with American jazz and funk. Allen left Kuti in 1979 – “I just got tired,” he says – and eventually landed up in Paris, where’s he’s lived since the mid-1980s. He’s made around twenty albums under his own name and his latest, called ‘The Source,’ and just released by Blue Note Records, is one of his best yet.
“I was always dreaming of doing something on Blue Note,” says Allen, who confesses that he listened to American jazz when he was starting out in the early 1960s. Indeed, the album is Allen’s most overtly jazz-influenced long player yet and the title, he says, refers to “the roots of my music. I’m doing jazz on this record but it’s not standard jazz.” On previous albums he has also supplied vocals as well as the rhythm track but that, he says, is a thing of the past. “I’ve been doing singing on my albums for some time but I don’t want to be singing anymore because I want to concentrate on my drumming. I want to evolve more. Singing is another thing for me but I think it’s confusing for people. I’m a drummer first so this new album is all instrumental.” He pauses then says “Just call a spade a spade,” and then laughs heartily. “That means I just stay as I am.”
Regarding how he came to join Blue Note, Allen says: “It was coincidental. We were doing a gig before I went in the studio to record the album and Jazz Village, my former record label was there, and people from Blue Note were also there. Jazz Village wanted me to do what I’d done before and maintain the same movement, but I wanted to have evolution. You cannot have stagnancy. After I finished the show, the next day, my manager was calling me and said Blue Note wants this album.”
‘The Source’ was recorded the old fashioned way, with everyone playing live together in the studio. “It was just to get the flavour of what it was in the past, like all of the jazz albums,” explains Allen. “We did it analogue but today, you can make a mistake one million times and a computer will correct it for you. I didn’t want to do that. Electronics are a very, very strong competitor with us but they make music too perfect. There’s no feel or feeling inside it.”
Allen leads a nine-piece mini-big band on the album, including a powerful five-piece brass section led by saxophonist and co-arranger, Yann Janklelewicz. “Yann has been my musician and playing with me for years now. That’s why I had him to arrange all the horns for me to the music I wrote,” says the drummer, who used a slimmed-down six-piece version of the band when he recently played London’s Jazz Cafe.
Prior to ‘The Source’ being released, Blue Note issued a 4-track EP earlier this year called ‘A Tribute To Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers,’ whose front cover, a striking black and white portrait of Allen in action, pays homage to Blue Note’s photographer and co-owner, Frank Wolff.
Allen cites Art Blakey as a major influence. “It’s because of his approach,” says Allen of the Jazz Messengers legendary leader and drummer. “He’s not the only jazz drummer I listened to – I also liked Gene Krupa and Max Roach – but he appeals to me more because of his delivery and what he plays. He wasn’t just playing a western-style. It was a fusion of standard jazz and western music mixed with African fills.”
Allen believes that the fact that Blakey spent time in Africa in the late 1940s infused the American’s style with a polyrhythmic richness. “I read in a book about Charlie Parker that Art Blakey was in Nigeria and Ghana and maybe spent two years there in Africa,” he says. “But he wasn’t listening to trap drummers, he was just dealing with people who were hand drummers in some of the villages and learning different styles of groove that put you in a trance. So I think why I chose him to be my idol was because he had great things that he was playing – this American drummer was hearing African drumming and putting it together with western music. I think that he was the only one that did that. There were other good American drummers – Max Roach was good – but it was just a question of something that they didn’t have, which Art Blakey had.”
There were no other drummers in Allen’s family, though his father was an amateur musician. “My old fella just played guitar for us as a hobby. He was a mobile engineer.” Tony initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a young man and trained to be an electrical engineer and got a job working at Nigerian TV and radio stations. But he heard the call of the drums, and after his working day had finished, would go to Lagos’ nightspots to see different bands play. “I became a night crawler,” he laughs, “because during the nights, I was out checking music, going to different nightclubs just to see live bands. I liked to watch live bands. A record is a record but I wanted to see how they did it.” It was the drums, most of all, that fascinated him. “It’s an instrument that I loved to watch when I went to watch a band, and it brings happiness to me. I don’t know why – maybe because as a drummer, everything is surrounding you and you are in the middle of it and all your limbs – your hands, your legs – can create sounds. It was the only instrument that mattered to me.”
Western-style drum kits were an expensive novelty and Tony didn’t own his own until the 1980s.“Being a musician in Africa, it wasn’t possible for an individual to own a drum set unless you were a musician who came from a rich family,” he reveals. “Normally it is the club and hotel owners – where I played with the bands I was in – who are the ones that own all the instruments. They just give you a chance to come and use it. You use it in the club and then you leave them behind. When I finished with Fela, I decided to have my own kit. By that time, I could play drums properly.”
Inevitably, our conversation turns to Fela Anikulapo Kuti (pictured above), the now legendary Nigerian bandleader and saxophonist who was one of the architects of Afrobeat. Allen first hooked up with Kuti in the early 1960s when they played jazz together in a quartet and then, a little later, they were in a band called Koola Lobitos, who style was a unique fusion of Ghanaian highlife music (itself a African-western fusion where traditional West African music was played with European instrumentation) with jazz. “It was different from normal highlife,” says Allen. “Fela decided to write it himself but it was not the way others did highlife. It was not straight highlife with singing and guitar. For him, it was more jazzy and to play it, you could not have a weak drummer or a drummer who is not flexible. You have to be flexible because this is not what you had to face before. Now you are facing something else now..and it’s coming from the mind of Fela Kuti.”
Kuti wrote and arranged all the music himself – except Tony’s drum parts. Initially, the band’s new style of music struggled to find an audience. “Almost the first five years no one was really interested,” he says. “Only the radicals, who are looking forward to changing things too, liked it. They followed us as did young kids, the university and the college guys. They were the only ones following us. They did not take us seriously until we arrived back from the States.”
Indeed, a trip to the USA in the late-’60s, where Kuti was influenced by the struggles of African-Americans striving for civil liberties, the militancy of the Black Panthers, and the funk manifesto of James Brown, inspired him to rename Koola Lobitos and change the direction of the music. Morphing into first, Nigeria ’70, and then Africa ’70, Kuti’s band would now make politically-driven music where rousing messages and vocal anthems would be underpinned by mesmeric Afrobeat funk. Says Allen: “Fela was a genius who took African music to another level with Afrobeat. I don’t see anybody that writes like Fela today – everybody’s just copying. God made us to meet and to work together. Working with him, I started to see drums from a different perspective – that the beat must have groove that can put people into a trance.”
But it wasn’t always easy working with Kuti, who became more capricious as a leader as time went on and whose outspoken political views antagonised the Nigerian government. On a more mundane level, Allen and his fellow band members were often owed money that was never or rarely paid. It wasn’t easy playing with Fela Kuti, especially in the ’70s when he had a huge, seemingly chaotic entourage, but Allen stayed for almost fifteen years before leaving in 1979. “The whole thing, the management and everything, became very rowdy, and personally, I didn’t want to contest that with him, because it was his own management,” states Allen. “Me, I’m just for the music, I’m not for the management stuff around it. Politics and policies don’t appeal to me.”
Fela Kuti’s music was never the same without Tony Allen on board: as a drummer, he was indispensable. But it worked both ways, as Allen reveals: “He was irreplaceable for me too…and his music.”
Since those heady days, Tony Allen as established himself as a viable solo artist as well as a go-to session drummer. His collaborations with ex-Blur man and Gorillaz co-founder, Damon Albarn, as a member of the pop supergroups The Good, The Bad & The Queen (pictured above), and Rocket Juice & The Moon has put Allen on the radar of mainstream music buyers. The former group’s debut album was critically acclaimed when it was released in 2007 and the veteran drummer reveals that “the second album should be finished soon.”
The other projects that he’s worked on in recent years are extremely varied (they range from Ernest Ranglin and Zap Mama to Charlotte Gainsbourg) and it reflects the drummer’s desire to avoid creative stagnation. Though he’s used electronics and samples on past projects the core of his style is organic Afrobeat. “I’m not getting away from Afrobeat…it’s me and I can use it the way I want to use it. I just like to mix things up a bit. It shouldn’t be exactly like what Fela was doing. That’s past for me. I’m just trying to move with the times.”
Certainly, Allen is a musician who prefers to look forward rather than back. Music – and life, for that matter – is still a big adventure for him. He can’t predict what he’ll do next. “I assure you by God’s grace that if you hear from me again, it’s not going to be the same as this new album,” he states. “It’s going be something else again. I like to be challenged and I always like to respond to that in my own way. ‘The Source’ is a good breakthrough for me, and for Blue Note, and although this is what my direction is now, I don’t know where it’s going to take me next.”
TONY ALLEN’S ‘THE SOURCE’ IS OUT NOW ON BLUE NOTE RECORDS