The drummer and unofficial music director of the late Fela Kuti’s band, Africa 70, from 1968 until 1979, Tony Allen (born Tony Oladipo Allen) helped create the sounds of Afro-beat. With his solo recordings, however, Allen has refused to remain stagnant, incorporating dub and avant-garde hip-hop influences into his modern African dance music.
A self-taught musician, Allen began to play drums at the age of 18 while working as a technician for a Nigerian radio station. Within nine months, he had embarked on a professional career as a drummer. Although Allen and Kuti had known each other since the early ’60s, when they performed on the Nigerian music circuit with different bands, they began playing American-style jazz together in 1964. Before long, they shifted to an African-influenced style of highlife jazz, which they continued to play for five years.
Forming Africa 70 in 1969, Allen and Kuti began reaching out to an international audience. A few months later, while touring North America for the first time, Allen was introduced to the music of James Brown, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. Despite critical acclaim, the group faced numerous obstacles, including financial difficulties, racial discrimination, and political oppression. Arrested during the first of a long series of government-sponsored raids of black townships in 1974, Allen spent three days in jail. The following year, he released his first album as a leader, Progress. After performing his last show with Kuti and Africa 70 at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1979, Allen continued to play with his group Lagos until immigrating to Europe in 1984. After temporarily living in London, he settled in France the following year and worked as a session drummer for such transplanted African musicians as Ray Lema and Manu DiBango, and released Never Expect Power Always (N.E.P.A.) in 1985.
Allen was largely inactive for the next decade, although he re-emerged in the late ’90s with a string of singles, culminating in the release of Home Cooking in 2002. Reissues of his ’70s solo albums started showing up around the same time, as well as Eager Hands and Restless Feet: The Best of Tony Allen, a summation of his post-Fela career. In 2004, a live album came out, and 2006 saw a return to his Afro-beat roots with Lagos No Shaking, which was recorded in the Nigerian city itself.
That same year, Allen co-founded the British alternative rock outfit the Good, the Bad & the Queen alongside Paul Simonon (the Clash), Simon Tong (the Verve), and Damon Albarn (Blur) and released a well-received eponymous album under the moniker in 2007, followed in 2009 by an all-new collection of Afro-beat material called Secret Agent, as well as Inspiration Information, Vol. 4 with Jimi Tenor. He also guested on Zap Mama’s full-lengths Supermoon and ReCreation.
In 2010, the Black Voices album was remastered and released in unedited session form under the title Black Voices Re-Visited. Allen further collaborated with Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea in the band Rocket Juice & the Moon. They released a self-titled album in 2013. He returned to recording solo in 2014 with a French trio, the Jazz Bastards. The results, titled Film of Life, featured guest appearances by Albarn, American-born Nigerian singer Kuku, and the renowned vocal ensemble Adunni & Nefertiti. It was released by Jazz Village in October 2014. ~ Craig Harris