The genius that is Tony Allen departed this mortal world in April of 2020, but not without leaving an unmatched legacy that crossed oceans and borders, bridging cultures and forging a sound that changed music. As the drummer for Fela Kuti’s revolutionary Africa 70, Allen’s polyrhythmic drumming defined Afrobeat, combining American Jazz and Nigerian Highlife to animate one of the most iconic performers of all time. Over the course of Allen’s tenure with the group, and later as a solo artist, he would continue to relentlessly innovate, incorporating new sounds and working with scores of contemporaries. His contributions as an artist and cultural ambassador left an indelible impact on every genre of popular music, from Techno to Jazz to Rock and Hip-Hop. Tony Allen’s music stands as an ongoing testament to the interconnected musical relationships and dialogues across the African diaspora, and their lasting influence on how we listen.
Aside from traditional Yoruba Juju music, Tony Allen was enamored with Jazz, particularly the recordings of Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Elvin Jones, musicians who had begun to experiment with West African rhythms and musical concepts. At the time, Nigeria’s immensely popular Igbo Highlife music was incorporating influences from Jazz formulating what became known as Afro-Jazz, connecting the American genre back to its roots. These early crosscultural dialogues pushed Allen to develop a drumming style that fused Highlife and Jazz. In the mid-1960s, Allen met Fela Kuti, and the two formed the group Koola Lobitos, which would later grow to become the legendary Africa 70 band. Nigerian audiences did not immediately take to this new sound, but following a trip to the United States, Kuti was exposed to James Brown and the Black Panthers. Allen began to incorporate the sounds of Black American Funk and Soul. By the 1970s, the group morphed their influences into Afrobeat, the sound of post-colonial Africa, making music that was concerned with economic and political liberation and Pan-Africanism.
The nearly 30 records which Allen appeared on with Africa 70 contain some of the most innovative drumming of all time. On classic albums like 1973’s “Gentleman” and 1977’s “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood”, Tony Allen is the driving force, the interplay of hi-hat and bass drum commanding your attention as a vocalist would. Throughout his time with Fela Kuti and Africa 70, Tony Allen introduced the world not only to Afrobeat, but to an entirely new way of conceptualizing rhythm. On Allen’s impact, Fela Kuti stated that “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.” In his post-Fela career, Allen moved to Paris and continued to be a vanguard. He experimented with Dub, Electro, and Hip-Hop. He was a willing mentor, collaborating with several generations of musicians inspired by his vernacular. French pop artists, such as Sebastien Tellier, Air, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, called upon Allen to help shape some of their most well-known work, such as Tellier’s “La Ritournelle” and Gainbourg’s “5:55”. You can hear Allen’s influence on Rock music through the Talking Heads, who cited Allen’s playing on 1973’s “Afrodisiac” as foundational to the sound of their 1980 classic “Remain in Light”. His collaborations with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz formed the bands The Good, the Bad, and the Queen and Rocket Juice and the Moon, where rock stars like Paul Simonon and Flea were eager to enter conversation with a musician Brian Eno once called “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”.
On some of his last recordings, Allen returned to his love of Jazz, while reminding listeners of the ongoing influence and legacy of the diaspora. Recording with Blue Note, he released a tribute to his hero Art Blakey, along with an album of original material and collaborating with the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. In 2018, Allen and Techno pioneer Jeff Mills released an EP that fused Afrobeat, Jazz, and Techno. On 2021’s aptly titled posthumous recording “There Is No End”, Allen worked with Hip-Hop artists such as Danny Brown and UK Grime star Skepta. Allen remained a constant innovator, absorbing sounds that had derived from West African music and conversing with new generations, passing on the ideals of Pan-Africanism. For Jazz Is Dead producers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, it is no small honor to share new music recorded with the drummer revolutionary Tony Allen.
Rest in Power
Born: July 20th, 1940
Died: April 30th, 2020